“Sugar Bowl” by Dan Winnipeg

29Mar11

Someone tried to break into my parents’ house and ended up stabbing my father, Abraham, in the hand. My mother wouldn’t talk about it and my father’s version changed with the time of day.

“I saw this hand coming through the window and when I reached out to push it away, another hand suddenly stabbed me with a carving knife. At first, I thought it was Swedish made, but now that I think about it, it was probably German. Those Germans have always known just how much carbon is needed to forge fine steel.”

My father was a short, slight man who radiated such charisma that most people left his presence convinced they’d been in conversation with someone over six feet tall.

The actual window in question, the time of day and even the color of the intruding hand varied with my father’s mood. Eventually, the polite policeman assigned to the case threw up his hands in frustration.

“Luckily I don’t have to sharpen knives anymore,” my father said, proudly pointing to where he’d been stabbed. “The surgeon did a great job closing the wound, but I never regained my old grip.”

The irony that a person such as himself—who sharpened things for a living—being injured by a knife did not escape his notice.

Esther, my mother, always turned away when she heard the story being repeated as if she wished this bit of family drama would sink quietly into the past. Jessica, my youngest sister, who could have been the only objective witness, had not been taking her medication and was therefore unreliable. My other two sisters, Lollie and Enid, had been out of town, so the only remaining witness was the house itself. As they say, if only the walls could talk.

My father, mother and Jessica continued to live in the house, technically together, emotionally worlds apart. No meals were shared. Jessica chain-smoked in her tiny attic room, staring out at the passing traffic, while my mother scoured the neighborhood for yard sales. By the time my father retired, the inside was filled with the detritus of abandoned clothing and broken appliances. Abraham retreated to a dark spot in the basement where he watched porn on low volume. Jessica listened to the Grateful Dead on earphones and crept down to the kitchen at night to forage for food. My mother, who always said her goal in life was to have nice things and peace and quiet, eventually died after the one thing she dreaded the most happened to her: diapers.

Toward the very end, before the place was sold and gutted, my father stared at mail order videos involving men and women who seemed to enjoy pissing and shitting on each other. When he was forced to sell the place, Jessica locked herself in her room. When the cops arrived a tune called “Just a Little Light” seeped out from under the door along with marijuana smoke and a faint scent of urine. The hinges were removed so that two enormous policemen and one matron could enter.

They eventually managed to get Jessica into restraints and half dragged, half carried her to an ambulance. A few shots of Thorazine and she was much easier to get into the hospital, up to her room and strapped to a bed. Someone dropped by to occasionally wipe her drool. Gradually, they lowered the dosage, brought in a therapist and relocated her to planet Earth. After a few months, when visitors appeared, she only looked up with a casual smile before returning to her endless games of cat’s cradle. She may have lacked judgment, but she certainly had fine motor skills.

With its broken panes of glass, askew shutters and cracked frames, the bleak, black window holes of my family’s house stared out sightless at the world. To the average, literate citizen it would be metaphorically ridiculous to say the house looked like Oedipus after he’d put his eyes out. But, nothing about my family was average and the image was spot on.

Just before the contractor totally gutted the interior, I flew back for one final walk through and a visit with my sister, Enid. Standing in the street, staring at the unholy mess before us, Enid dabbed at her eyes.

“Jesus, will you just look at it! It’s as if all the shit that happened inside has been forced to show on the outside.”

“So, our old house has become like Dorian Gray?”

“You are such a fucking English teacher.”

Our hands touched and fingers locked. This was our war zone. All those fetid memories circled the house like sewer gas. Enid walked toward it, gently dragging me along. We climbed stairs to the second flood bedrooms. Our parent’s room was the largest with a beautiful bay window in the center of the east wall.

“It’s so much bigger than I remember it,” I said.

“Remove five tons of furniture and any room is bound to look bigger.”

We stared out then down at a ring of rubbish that had been thrown from the second floor and attic rooms. Smashed cardboard boxes were split open allowing thousands of old newspapers to flutter around the yard. Cracked blenders, rusty food processors, pots and pans and various cooking utensils lay about as if an enormous army had once encamped there and suddenly disappeared leaving all its commissary equipment behind.

As Enid walked to the kitchen, I paused behind her and knelt on one of the steps and examined the wood grain. I knew what I was looking for even before my brain fully processed the thought. Where were the silhouettes of brownish-red spots my mother left behind when she carried the laundry basket down to the machines? Who could I have even asked to explain their presence? She always complained about her piles, but years passed before any of us realized she was talking about hemorrhoids. The wood appeared dirty, but free of stains. Well, my memory was twenty-five years old. A lot of things can disappear in twenty-five years.

Growing up, we watched shows like Father Knows Best and the Ozzie and Harriet family sagas. I was mesmerized by the fairytale quality of the narrative lines. Later, when I was introduced to Greek tragedies in school I immediately experienced déjà-vu.

Ricky was jealous of is older brother’s newly acquired license and clowned it up using a soapbox derby creation to show that he, too, had something to drive. Then Ozzie took Ricky aside and showed him how to shift gears on a supermarket parking lot. Of course, Ricky had to try driving himself and ended up circling too close to the shiny plate glass windows with dire consequences. And then there was me in real life trying to protect and save my mother from guess who?

In between the Ovaltine commercials and over-riding the television’s tinny speakers, my father’s voice banked off walls like a poorly shot billiard ball, hitting everyone and everything in sight. The most stringently enforced family rule was that we all gather together for the evening meal. All dishes were served with a heavy dose of irony. If our friends happened to drop by and join us, my father was always the expansive host, complimenting the females and encouraging the males, so that myself and my three sisters invariably heard the line, “I wish I had a father like yours.”

If no witnesses were in sight, a different dynamic applied. Abraham liked to draw me into arguments that typically ended with him pounding the table and yelling, “Now, that’s just plain stupid! Think about what you just said!”

Or, he might turn to my older sister.

“Are you going to eat all of that pie? Is it any wonder you look the way you do? Here, let me take some of that off your plate.”

“No, I w… w… want…”

“Oh Jesus, what is wrong with you? Want what? Come on, you can say it.”

She looked down in silence.

“You know what I w…w…wish? I wish I had more coffee! Esther, I need more coffee.”

Several years earlier, when he realized Jessica, Enid, Lollie and I quickly emptied the original, small sugar bowl for our breakfast cereal, he went out and bought the heavy, glass and stainless steel model that became the table centerpiece.

Once the coffee was poured, he flipped the lid and scooped out two spoons of sugar. He then splashed in some cream and stirred it so strongly it was a miracle the cup itself didn’t shatter.

He was slightly more cautious with Lollie, my middle sister.

“Are you still going out with that moron with the flat face?”

Silence.

“Ooh, such a look! Why such hatred? He is a moron and his face is flat. If it’s the truth, there’s no reason to get mad.”

Once, in a daring show of rebellion, she stuck out her tongue. He knocked back his chair, grabbed her by the back of the head and pushed her face into a mound of mashed potatoes.

“Abraham! My God, what are you doing? What’s the matter with you?” my mother cried.

“There’s nothing the matter with me, at all,” he snarled, and left the room.

“Here, my darling, let me help you,” my mother reached over with a wet rag to help clean her daughter’s face.

“Stop it!” Lollie cried, and pushed herself away from the table.

What my father had done was inexcusable, but to see Lollie standing there with mashed potatoes sticking to her face and hair was more than the rest of us could bear and laughter was the only release we could manage. Through all those years, there was never a concerted rebellion. We were all fearful he would attack us next, and when he didn’t we’d cheerfully turn traitor on a sibling.

Another time, with no apparent provocation, Jessica suddenly looked over at him and asked, “Did Granpa pick on you when you were little?”

This precocious flash of insight caused a fist to come down BANG on the table like Jove’s thunderbolt. Bang! Even with its heavy ballast of sugar, the center bowl bounced and whirled until the fading last vibration. By the third slam on the table, Jessica had broken eye contact and the rest of us looked away. I focused on the sugar bowl’s curved bottom that captured the kitchen’s ambient light that gave the glass design a radiance as if the interior held diamonds instead of common, sweet granules.

“I was just wondering,” Jessica murmured. “Nothing to get so mad about.”

He staggered to his feet, tipped over his coffee cup so that the brown liquid overflowed the saucer and dripped on to the tablecloth.

“Now look at what your mother’s going to have to clean. It’s your fault, Jessica. Yours alone. Jesus, what a nut house.”

As a child, I curled up at night with a blanket for a tent over my head, turned on my Lone Ranger flashlight ring and read Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Introduction to Greek Myths. I read how Icarus taught his son, Daedalus, to fly, but didn’t instruct him on the full meaning of hubris. So, the boy took off on his own with dire consequences.

I stepped back from the yard, all the way to the street so that I had a wide-angle view of the house and the garage.

“What ever happened to the Buick?” I asked Enid, squeezing her hand.

“Oh, it just… well, you know, at first Pa had all the windows replaced, but then he finally admitted it burned too much gas, and sold it.”

“Who’d he buy it from in the first place?”

“Arnie, the bologna guy.”

“Oh yeah, Arnie.”

“God!” she laughed. “When I think of all those people who loved those chopped ham sandwiches Pa sold on the side. When you think about it, he really worked hard for us. Remember when he had that egg route on Sundays? Even so, how did he ever make enough money to support a family sharpening knives, selling chopped ham sandwiches and delivering eggs?”

I started laughing myself, thinking of Arnie delivering boxes of cheap bologna ends from the meat packing plant and my father grinding them up in stainless steel bowls and then mixing it with chopped celery, relish and mayonnaise.

“Remember that lady from Beacon Hill who kept asking Pa what his secret recipe was for those chopped ham sandwiches?”

“Oh yeah,” Enid dabbed her eyes. “I only use the finest imported Danish hams,” she spoke in that dour, off-pitch tone reserved for old wealth who lived near Louisburg Square. “And in the end, the taste of my salad doesn’t begin to compare with yours.”

“Try using a few pieces of domestic bologna, Mrs. Saltonstall. It’ll do wonders for the palate,” I said, imitating my father.

We both stared at the cracked remains of the cement driveway that led up to the doorless garage.

“Did you have a chance to look around?” she asked me. “I mean, find anything you’d like to take as a memento?”

“I know it sounds weird, but for some reason the only thing I wanted is the sugar bowl. Even though the house was filled with broken blenders and splintered furniture, somehow the sugar bowl remained intact. As long as it was in the center of the table it meant, despite all the yelling and insults, we were together. Funny thing is it’s so ridiculously big I don’t know if I’ll ever use it even if I do find it in all this rubble. What’s wrong?”

“I wrapped it up and put it inside a paper bag, Danny, but someone dropped it and the bowl broke into hundreds of pieces. I’m sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t even know what made think of it. Maybe I should’ve taken one of those blenders.”

We both laughed at the family joke.

From my earliest memories, my youngest sister, Jessica, was into crafts. You could tell where she’d been sitting by the piles of twisted gimp, wires, loose beads and string. Everyone knew how artists had special temperaments, so her increasingly erratic behavior was accepted and folded into the family mix as an exotic ingredient to the recipe.

I heard what happened second-hand. How there’d been another fight between Abraham and Esther. This one was about his purchase of that enormous Buick and how wasteful and ridiculous that had been.

“There’s never any money!” my mother cried. “And, then you go and buy this car that gets about two miles a gallon.”

“I’ll do whatever the hell I want to do,” he screamed back. “Since when do I have to check in with you when I go shopping?”

Neither of them noticed Jessica, first covering her ears, then her eyes, then quietly getting to her feet and walking outside to stare at the cherry-red car in the driveway. They were still screaming when she smashed the windshield with a shovel, but by the time she started in on the rear window they’d stopped and were watching her through the screen door.

“She looked like a God damn puppet jumping up and down, swinging that shovel,” Pa said. “I never even thought about going outside. Just crazy.”

We lived in a fairytale house with a magic table cloth that was always covered with food, and some of us left to go out on a quest and had adventures, but the youngest daughter never got all the instructions straight and stayed home. A few of us picked up one degree or another and started saving money or put something down on a house, but Jessica created ever-more intricate household dioramas splashed with brilliant colors on the outside and gray for all the interiors.

“What’s that little bump on the roof?” my mother asked.

“That’s not a bump,” Jessica said. “It’s me trying to get out.”

“Maybe you should experiment drawing animals.”

So Jessica began to draw any number of birds. Eagles were her specialty. But she never flew herself. She could only turn inward, a spiraling gyre away from us all.

Enid stood next to me and looked up at the empty windows.

“Maybe it would’ve been better if they’d been drunks or took drugs,” I said to her. “At least that would’ve explained some of the craziness.”

“Did their parents bring it over with them from Europe, Danny? There must have been a time when Abraham and Esther kissed and hugged. Can you imagine?”

“I don’t imagine we were conceived while they argued over furniture.”

Jessica lived with my parents for years after the rest of us moved out. Shingles slid off the roof and boxes filled with back issues of the Boston Globe were piled in every room. Layers of grime accumulated on the floors, leaky radiators slowly stained every corner and my parents finally stopped everything: knife sharpening, chopped ham sandwiches and egg deliveries. My father promised that one day when all the cold cuts had been used up and all the canned goods were gone he would stop. The day I received an envelope that held a snapshot of my mother holding a wedge of bologna in front of her I knew what it meant. They were officially retired. My father continued to go out shopping, to the library, to God knows where in the city and my mother drove around the neighborhood visiting sidewalk sales and local flea markets.

My father slept in the large bed upstairs, playing Puccini so loud the neighbors would have complained had they now known the origin of the music, but they didn’t and therefore kept their complaints to themselves.

On her shopping expeditions, my mother sought out used clothing, small appliances (especially broken blenders), record collections, condiment sets, bathroom curtains and discarded family photo albums.

“Oh, Daniel, can you just imagine someone throwing away a family photo album?” she said. “Finding family photographs in a trash heap makes me want to cry. Who would be so cruel as to want to cut themselves off from the very sight of their own family?”

She spoke to me as she applied silver polish to spoons, forks and knives. I never understood how she could sit there so long polishing until she had a small pyramid of gleaming utensils. Her chapped fingers went from one item to another in mechanical fashion as if they were part of a rosary that kept her calm, focused and forgiving. The sugar bowl was always last. By the time she was done, the stainless steel top would reflect her face.

It was understood that everything she purchased was for the kids. But after we all grew up and moved away, except for Jessica, the stored goods were kept for the next generation, or nieces and nephews or… who knew. The real tragedy revealed itself when one of our nieces asked for one of the blenders stored in the kitchen cabinet and my mother refused to give it to her. I can’t recall the reason given, but the bottom line was goods only entered the house; nothing went out.

With the end of the knife sharpening business the basement stayed dark and unused, until late in the evening when Jessica occasionally drifted down to sit silently on a high metal chair, watch cable programs on a television set she’d purchased with her Social Security Disability checks and play cat’s cradle. She stopped taking her medication because it gave her facial tics and involuntary muscles spasms. Sometimes her head swung back in the middle of a conversation. She was stopped a few times by the police because they thought she was drunk.

When my mother urged her to try newer meds, she refused. She said she didn’t trust anything the doctors prescribed. Her behavior worsened in direct proportion to the tension between my parents. Jessica got up before dawn, pulled on layers of mismatched clothing, draped her tangled hair with headphones that plugged into a Walkman and sat on a garbage pail by the side of the house. Her entire body rocked to music as she chain-smoked unfiltered Camels. No one dared approach her.

If she was on the ground floor when the fights began, Jessica scrambled to her upstairs room where she continued to smoke and ground out the butts into the wooden floor. From the time she smashed the windows in my father’s car, Jessica was treated with a mixture of fear and deference. My mother continued to cook for her and washed her jeans and blouses and whenever she thought the moment propitious, urged her to see someone and take her medications, to which Jessica usually responded:

“You think I’m crazy? You’re the one living with him!”

My mother first began sleeping on the living room couch when it became too hot in the upstairs bedroom. Later, it was too cold in winter—especially since my father kept all the bedroom windows open and a howling gale wasn’t enough to make him close them. I accidentally opened their bedroom door one bitterly cold January evening and found myself rooted to the spot, unable to stop staring at the pale, nude form of my father lying on his back, arms outstretched in a kind of Jesus position. The mound alongside him, I realized, was my mother’s body under several blankets and, this is too weird to make up so it’ll have to stand as true, a rug she’d hauled up from the floor in a final, desperate attempt at conserving warmth.

After I moved far away, after the old house had been sold, after my mother died, one final umbilicus remained: my father. And when death suddenly scooped him off, horrible thing to say, I felt relieved. Safe.

Lollie called me a year or so after that, and said she had something she wanted to tell me.

“This all happened during one of the times I dropped by to see Ma,” she said. “I wanted her to sit down with a cup of tea and just talk. She scared me, sometimes, with that fixed smile she developed and the way she’d give this little rocking back and forth motion in her chair. In the old days, when Pa was out of the house, I could visit her and she’d relax and let me massage her feet and cut her toe nails.”

“What happened? Did she tell you some horrible story I don’t even want to hear?”

“Yes, that’s what happened, but don’t you dare hang up on me. I have to tell this to you because I stopped seeing my own therapist and it’s not the kind of thing you bring up during a book club.”

I looked out through the rear window of my home in Santa Fe and let my gaze settle on the lemon tree and then the red blooms of the bougainvillea. So far from the memories of the old house, the screams and sighs, the dead lilac bush, the termite-eaten sandbox and the slight depression in the ground where the giant elm tree once stood.

“Okay, I’m listening.”

“I was sitting there talking to her when I realized she’d fallen asleep right in her chair. Oh my God, she had this little girl’s expression on her face, how can I describe it, so sweet and sad at the same time, it was all I could do not to cry.”

I held the phone away from me.

“I didn’t want to disturb her. She looked so peaceful. I got up from the table and walked into the living room where I stood in front of that pathetic couch she slept on. Mama was always so neat and tidy, and this couch was covered in wrinkled sheets, stained pillows, and twisted blankets as if she’d wrestled them every evening in her dreams. I stood there feeling strangled up inside. I bent over to try and straighten it out, fluff up the pillows, until it looked halfway decent, and then…”

“What?”

“When I stepped back, I thought I saw something under the couch. I got down on my knees to reach for whatever it was and I felt this sharp piece of metal. It was a knife!” Her voice rose. “A God damn knife from the old sharpening business. One of those long, really sharp, Swedish steel knives, and somehow I knew it wasn’t there by accident.”

“What?”

“I remembered what Ma told me once about how he—that’s how she called Pa in those days, not Abraham or Abe or your father, but, he—sometimes tried to get amorous with her.” She choked back a laugh. “Yeah, amorous! That’s the real reason she stopped sleeping upstairs.”

“Jesus Christ! Are you telling me she was the one who stabbed Pa that time they had a break-in?”

“There was never any break-in, Danny. That knife was always there to protect her from him,” she cried. “Oh God!”

Then it was quiet on the line and I let my focus stray from the outside trees to a pot of geraniums and then to the passage of river rocks that linked the Meyer lemon trees.

“Danny? Are you there?”

I didn’t know what I would finally say to my distant sister, but I was thinking to myself how far away from the emotional carnage I’d placed myself and how far away from it I wished to remain.

* * *

I continued to call Enid and Lollie from time to time, to see how they were doing and how Jessica was getting along.

“That halfway house was so good for her,” Enid had said. “She made friends, found a therapist she liked and trusted and started back on her medication.”

“That’s great. How are you and Lollie getting along?”

“Oh, you know. Same, same. Getting by. We each have our own places now and one day I’m raking leaves the next thing I know its time to shovel the snow.”

“I don’t want to make a big deal of it, Enid, but isn’t it amazing you don’t stutter now at all. Did it just stop on its own?”

“Yeah, I guess. A shrink I used to see told me the stuttering would go away if I learned how to relax. You don’t go into that kind of stuff, but I did Transcendental Meditation for a while and I think that was good for me, too.”

“Are either of you seeing anyone?”

“We each go out occasionally, but it’s hard. I’m not sure how Lollie feels, but I have a tough time getting physically close to anyone. That kind of puts a damper on how far relationships will go.”

“I imagine.”

“Jessica wants to visit you!”

She said it so fast I was momentarily silenced.

“She’s the same old Jessica, but also okay, if you know what I mean. You were asking me if I was seeing anyone, well, the funny thing is Jessica is the only one of us who goes out on regular dates now. So, what do you say? Just for the weekend?”

“Sure. I mean, yeah. That’d be great. Did you have any weekend in mind?”

“She bought tickets for next Friday. Can you pick her up at the airport?”

“Christ, this is pretty fast. She’s really okay?”

“Yes, you’ll see what I mean.”

* * *

I didn’t connect the slim, shorthaired woman in designer jeans and maroon t-shirt as my sister, Jessica, until she walked up to me.

“Hi, Danny. Been a while, huh?”

She carefully placed her carry-on bag down and we hugged each other, softly and cautiously. Afterwards, she followed me to the parking lot, still clinging to her bag with one hand and dragging her wheeled-suitcase with the other. My offer to carry something had been quietly turned down. She was only twelve years younger than me, but I was beginning to feel like a father. As she slid her suitcase into the trunk, I noticed the back of her shirt had the image of a soaring eagle.

“This is so cute!” she exclaimed, at my small, turquoise adobe home. “I guess I don’t have to ask if those are real cactus out front.”

“They’re dangerously real,” I said, this time in control of her luggage.

An hour later, she was unpacked, freshened-up and sipping herbal tea in the kitchen.

“How come you only have salt and pepper shakers on the table?” she asked. “No sugar bowl?”

There was something about the way she asked the question that made me look at her more closely.

“I guess I could never find anything as big as the one we used to have,” I said. “Nothing in the stores these days seems adequate.”

“Do you miss it? I mean, whenever I think back on those dinners together I always imagine every face around the table and then I see the bowl. It was almost as if we were there to worship the sugar.”

She laughed, then carefully picked up the saltshaker and shook a small pile of granules on to the formica.

Smiling at me for a second, she moved the shaker into the middle of the pile and somehow managed to balance it so that it stayed upright, but at an angle.

“Nice trick, huh? It’s actually being supported by the tiny grains of salt.”

“Where on earth did you learn that?”

For a second, a wave of panic touched her features.

“In the hospital,” she whispered.

A thick piece of white thread caught her attention. She reached out to pick it up and then, as if she’d suddenly thought of something, rolled it up into a ball and flicked it away. Then she straightened the saltshaker.

“I’m really happy you’re here, Jessica. We’re going to have a great time. Do you like Mexican food?”

“I’m not sure, but I’m willing to give it a try. First, I have something for you.”

She went back into the guest bedroom and returned with her carry-on bag.

“What’s this, a house-warming gift? You didn’t have to do that.”

She delicately removed a brown-paper wrapped object and held it out for me to accept. It was heavier than I expected and she kept her hands on mine until she was sure I had it safely on my side of the table.

In the middle of the unfolded paper, stood the old sugar bowl. The stainless steel top gleamed and the hundreds of glass fragments that had been glued together caught a stray beam of sunlight and released it as a kaleidoscope of colors.

“I know we don’t have the greatest family memories,” she said, “but this bowl seemed to be a survivor like the rest of us.”

What could I do but nod my head in agreement?


Dan Winnipeg is a Tucson writer whose fiction has appeared in Black Market Review (UK), Connotation Press and Pig In a Poke. His poetry has appeared in over 40 print and online journals.


To read Dan Winnipeg’s comments on Anna Sykora’s “Words of the Whale,” click here.

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Notes from Denis Underwood, Online Managing Editor
This story grabbed me from the start with its wonderful opening, and delivered richness throughout in character, dialogue and description while chronicling a family’s dysfunction. Dan Winnipeg does an admirable job covering so much ground here. Some characters struggle to achieve redemption and balance, including a sister who seems the most unlikely to succeed at such things. Others move on and flourish, overcoming difficult beginnings. And, like the sugar bowl made whole again with care and patience, I get the feeling this family will be put back together as well.

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Comments on this story by Anthony Spaeth, author of “Ilpohechatoka!”
An engaging beginning. Action and tension from the outset. The father’s character is revealed through who he blames and how he blames and how his story changes. The father’s flaws are established without naming them.

Some excellent and surprising language, as when sugar is referred to as the “ballast” in a sugar bowl. “Even with its heavy ballast of sugar, the center bowl bounced and whirled until the fading last vibration.”

The humor works. “I don’t imagine we were conceived while they argued over furniture.” An excellent line.




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