Jul 04, 2018, 05:58AM

Sugar, Sugar

Divorced dad, family, September 1969.

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Harry thought the little girl was acting funny, in a way, but Roberta didn’t have to make such a fuss about a piece of pie. When Roberta and Bobby had been kids, he could swear she hadn’t been the bossy type. But she offered Sandy’s girl, little Constance, offered her a second piece of lemon meringue pie, and when Constance said no, somehow Roberta treated the situation like a problem. “You can have it,” Roberta said. “Goodness, I’m sure you can have a second piece of pie.” The little girl was sitting up the way her mother taught her, and her hands held the edge of the table. She pulled the corners of her lips back by just a little bit; Harry had watched Sandy do the same thing when her mind was made up. But Roberta kept on. “Nobody can mind a little extra on a special occasion,” she said. All right, Harry thought. All right, why are we having a fuss?

Bobby, Roberta’s twin, had been looking off across the restaurant, an expression on his face like the air was weighing him down. So today Roberta was bossy and Bobby seemed like he was thinking about the town dump. A lot of the afternoon had gone all right, but these moments popped up and they made you feel like you were trying to lace a shoe and the lace was too short. Nothing could ever be the way it should. Nothing would find its proper place and settle. Another one: when Harry first drove up to the restaurant, Roberta had already been sitting at the table, a glower set on her broad face—what Harry considered a pretty face. She got there early and was acting like they all should have got there early too. Harry gave Roberta a big kiss and Constance had held her hand out and said her name clearly, as Sandy liked her to do when meeting grown-ups. A moment went by before Roberta smiled down at her, quite a long moment. But Harry knew for a fact that Roberta liked kids. He remembered that back in high school there had been a couple of summers, at least, when she’d been a camp counselor, and doing it had been her choice (with what he earned, his kids didn’t have to do jobs when they were growing up). So what was wrong now?

Then Bobby and his fiancee had finally arrived, though really they were pretty much on time. It just felt long, sitting around the table with Roberta and the little girl. Plus Harry was on a bit of a schedule, because back home Sandy was getting ready to take a couple of big customers to dinner and she needed Harry back by 5:30 so he could wear his suit. (The thought of the trousers made him wince a little; maybe he had put on a pound lately.) A Buick pulled into the parking lot and Harry saw his son get out of the passenger side. From the other side there got out a low, dark woman, and Harry realized he was looking at his daughter-in-law to be. Roberta sighed once, sharp enough for Harry to notice.

Minutes later the four of them were all facing each other: Harry, the twins, the dark fiancee. “I’m happy to meet Bobby’s father,” she said, and she gave his hand a quick, precise shake. She smiled. She had a dimple near the corner of her mouth, and it looked like it had been drilled down an extra distance, so when she smiled it was like her face developed a tunnel. Bobby stood alongside her, looking five years younger than she did, and maybe he was—she ran a pharmacy. Her name was Irene Egazarian, and for Harry that was a thought in itself, though you didn’t hear too much against her kind of people. Her eyes were dark, he did notice that. They weren’t brown, they were black.

“Hello,” Miss Egazarian said, and she smiled again, but she was talking to the little girl.

“I’m pleased to meet you, my name is Constance,” Sandy’s girl said, reaching up her hand. To shake it Miss Egazarian had to dip her shoulders and at the same time hold her elbow square. Harry had forgotten all about the girl, but apparently she had climbed out of her seat when Harry and Roberta got up for the newcomers.

Everybody was getting ready to sit down, which took a little doing because of figuring out who went where. The little girl stood by her seat and clamped her hand as far up its back as she could reach. Bobby and Roberta both stood away from the table, and it was funny to see them like that, with a table between them. Growing up, it had seemed like they spent their time side by side. Also, which was foolish, Harry couldn’t shake the feeling they were the wrong height. When he thought about the twins, they were nine or 10, maybe 12, like when he was shooting features. Now he was looking at people with the wrong size hands. He had a feeling like a big part of a movie had been dropped out and new action put on at the end. The audience just had to assume it kind of made sense.

Miss Egazarian sat down before Bobby, of course. She was in Roberta’s old seat and Bobby sat down next to her. The little girl climbed into her seat (Harry had some fun holding it out for her), so she was between him and Bobby. Roberta wound up next to Miss Egazarian and more or less directly across the table from the girl, who was carefully pushing her spoon so it was out of line with her knife, then pulling it back into line again. Miss Egazarian leaned over and complimented Roberta on her blouse, and Roberta smiled back at her but only briefly. For his part Harry couldn’t help thinking about the waistband of that damn space suit and how it dug in. More than three years now and he could swear the thing governed his life. Harry’s mouth was continually thwarted; he felt like it didn’t belong to him. He never had pie, which was the best food ever made. If he wanted a second steak, he didn’t have a second steak. Half a pat of butter on mashed potatoes. Once every couple of months he got two scoops of coffee ice cream (the flavor he liked best). Sandy had laid down the rules for him, because she knew as well as he did that the commander of the space ship—station—couldn’t look like a bowling pin. But it made for a weary time. Long ago his stomach didn’t use to grab for room at every opportunity. He blamed the costume and its waistband.

Constance had to follow rules too, because Sandy was a good mother and thought about nutrition. The girl had to eat every pea, if it was peas, or every carrot or, like today, every piece of celery. Harry knew that much. She could have a piece of pie, so at least somebody did, but she couldn’t have two—“no seconds for dessert” Harry had heard Sandy say a couple of times. Not that he had to remind the girl. As far as Harry could tell, Constance listened better than just about any other kid in the world. She didn’t listen to him, necessarily, because he didn’t have much to tell her, but she remembered every word out of her mother’s mouth. “Mommy’s arrangements,” the girl said. Even TV: she didn’t watch more than she was supposed to, and kids always watched TV.

Laughing, Harry reminded the twins how they’d creep out of bed and watch the late show. Whenever it had monsters, there’d they be, huddled next to the set... “Dad, that was once,” Roberta said now, and she sounded irritable. “Why do you think that was all the time? We saw King Kong. One movie.

“Well, I remember your mother was none too pleased,” Harry said. “She came back into the room and—” He stopped. Roberta’s gray eyes had turned flat as slate. Probably he should have left their mother out of it.

But Roberta didn’t say anything about that. Instead she turned to Bobby, who was looking at the menu with his fiancee. “It was one time,” she said to him. “Right?” she said, and she added, “Bobby?”

He looked up. “What was?” he asked, and he smiled because he was a boy with a good nature. Roberta had a good nature too, normally. They took after him, as far as Harry was concerned. Of course, once they hit college, things had changed a bit. For five years or more the twins had been having their moods, at least when he was around, and he supposed maybe the business with Ellen played a part. But today Bobby’s mood seemed to have straightened out and Roberta was having a snit for both of them.

“When we were supposed to be in bed and we watched the late show.”

Bobby raised his eyebrows and considered. “Mom came in when Kong was fighting the pterodactyl,” he said. “Right at the good part.”

“‘What are you Indians up to?’” Roberta said, and she and Bobby laughed. Harry guessed that was something Ellen used to say to them. Miss Egazarian smiled.

“I wanted to see the dinosaurs,” Bobby said, and went back to the menu. “How do you feel about pecan?” he said to Miss Egazarian.

Roberta’s snit had returned to her face, stronger than ever. All in all, Harry was getting a little ticked with her. Putting on a pleasant disposition couldn’t be such a tough job. Just now, when he mentioned her mother, and she had... well, if he didn’t mention Ellen, what did that look like? He felt like he couldn’t put a foot right, and he was the one paying for the dinner.

He looked down at Constance, who was still finishing her hamburger. She had cut it into little bits, the whole thing, and then ate the bits one by one with her fork, carefully. Sandy had dressed her up in something new and fancy—a lime-green dress with a lot of its right side taken up by a yellow shape like a sunflower—and Sandy always wanted to be sure good clothes didn’t get in a mess. Constance remembered. Harry felt like announcing to the table what a fine mother Sandy was, but he couldn’t talk about that either. He remembered from a year, two years ago, when he had announced to the twins that Sandy had scored the highest on her real estate exam“That’s nice about Sandy,”his son had answered. It hadn’t been Roberta that time, it had been his son. At least today the boy was feeling human, but then you had his sister, and either way Harry had to mind his p’s and q’s. He felt hemmed in; he didn’t have an inch of ground to call his own.

Until they were finishing their desserts, it seemed like things were going a little better. Miss Egazarian talked a bit about growing up in the north, about picking season and minding the counter at her dad’s store, the miles of workers filing in to spend their wages. It turned out her family didn’t have a television until she was grown, and Harry guessed maybe she was the first person in the house ever to go to college. Harry liked that. Nobody in his family had been to college until the twins. The hole-dimple appeared in Miss Egazarian’s face when she smiled, but it was nice the way her white teeth flashed against her skin. She let out a laugh when Bobby described the way his boss acted at the office, and it was a genuine laugh, like it had taken her by surprise.

Maybe Roberta saw Harry looking down at the little girl and somehow that put a thought in her head. Or maybe it was the laugh that got her going, because it was right after that she sighted at little Constance and started about the pie. Roberta spoke with the lilt adults use when talking to children they don’t know, like she had a great proposition of fun to lay before the kid. Pie was indeed fun. If it were up to Harry, the little kid would take the second piece and have a good time. But Sandy knew what what was, and Constance knew what Sandy had told her.

“No, thank you, miss,” little Constance said.

“Did your mother say you couldn’t?” Roberta asked, and Harry was put off by something in her voice.

“No, thank you,” Constance said. Now her hands were holding the edge of the table.

“Oh, it’s good,” Roberta said, trying to sound as if even more fun were now involved.

A silence. Harry realized they were all waiting for Constance to say something. Instead Roberta spoke again, about being able to have a second piece. It was funny, because her voice shook a little. Constance tucked the corners of her mouth, just like Sandy would, and looked back at Roberta. Looking at her, Harry saw Constance gulp once, and then her blue eyes looked over at him. Harry wondered if he ought to do anything.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” someone said brightly. “But let’s wrap the piece up.” It was Miss Egazarian. Her white teeth gleamed, and she looked at Roberta as if the two of them had cooked up a project together. “The pie here is so good,” she said, “and this way Constance can have her piece later. Having something to look forward to can be so much fun.” She turned to Constance. “Is that all right?”

Constance nodded slowly. She was looking at the plate now.

“I’ll talk to the waiter,” Miss Egazarian said.

“I—” Roberta said, but then she fell silent.

“It’s nice to think of giving her a treat,” Miss Egazarian said. “A wonderful idea.”

“Yes,” Roberta said. “All right. Thank you.”

A silence descended, during which Bobby looked at his fiancee with especially warm eyes. Harry had to admit he liked her too. For a little bit there it had looked like they were all going to have a scene, and he wasn’t sure over what. But Miss Egazarian—Helena—had stepped in. Damned if he knew what was eating Roberta.

Outside he gave Miss Egazarian a kiss on the cheek. “Well, I’ve got another daughter,” he said. Bobby shook his hand with the slow, bashful smile that Harry remembered from when he was a little boy. With him at least things seemed to have gone back the way they should be.

“She’s older than your wife,” Roberta said as they watched the two head for Miss Egazarian’s car.

“Is that so?” Harry asked, because it seemed possible but unlikely, like a bar bet—Joe DiMaggio stealing more bases than Pee Wee Reese. She’s 32,” Roberta said. “How old is Sandy?” Now everything he hadn’t liked about her voice was right out there for him to hear.

“She’s almost 32,” Harry said, and realized that wasn’t a very good answer. In fact Roberta now gave a bent-pin smile. “Sandy is a wonderful mother and wife and as smart as anything, and she’s a grown-up wom—” Harry began.

“She’d better be grown-up,” Roberta said. “Her husband is 57.”

Now Harry felt his temper. “All right,” he said. “What’s eating you? You just tell me what’s eating you.”

Roberta looked at him. “You left our mother,” she said.

The unfairness of this slapped Harry. It wasn’t an unfairness that could be pinned down exactly. It wasn’t located in any particular detail; it was all-surrounding. He had just been living his life, that’s all. He paid Ellen her money every month, and don’t tell yourself that wasn’t a stretch sometimes, and maybe he would have liked to pack in the TV show and the pants that made him look like a bowling pin, and pack in Olsen and that little pissant, CG. But he’d been earning, and he gave Ellen her share every month. There—that was the unfairness.

“I pay her the alimony,” he said.

Roberta didn’t just look at him now, she goggled. It was like someone had put in her mouth a cracker covered with the filthiest mustard ever sold. Her mouth made a curdled “o” and she wagged her head slowly from side to side.

“I have to go,” Harry said. “I have to get back.”

“Sandy says you have to,” Roberta said. This was true, so Harry decided to ignore it.

Harry was getting behind the wheel—he could slide in pretty easily, a tribute to his diet, Sandy’s diet—when he heard scrabbling at the passenger door. He’d forgotten about Constance. He slid out again, and by himself he would have been cursing, and opened the door for her. She climbed onto the passenger seat, eyes not far above the dashboard, her slice of pie wrapped in foil and sitting on her lap.

Harry was still mad as they drove along. He’d just been living his life. Now, somehow, he was supposed to be to blame for everything. “I don’t know what they want,” he said out loud, because talking was his habit. “Always one or the other of them, or both, and this time it’s her. Brought them into this world and—” He fell silent.

Constance pushed the button on the dash compartmentso it opened, just a little, and then she pushed it shut. Then she pushed the button again, let the compartment open, and shut it. She pushed the button again.

“Stop that,” Harry said. “Will you stop that?”

They drove on quietly for a couple of minutes, and Harry heard the girl crying. “Aw, jeez,” Harry said, bitter and helpless. The last thing he...

He looked over at her, and her face was red and large. Her body had set as if it would never move again, and tears like globes shook out of her eyes. He’d never seen her cry before. Maybe she had sometime when he wasn’t around, but he had never seen it himself. He felt overmatched. The one time she had to cry, it was with him around and nobody else. Now that he thought about it, he had never been alone with a crying child. Women took care of these things. In the old days it had been Ellen, of course. At any rate it was not supposed to be him.

“Now, come on,” he said. “Well, I... Come on. We have to get back to your mother. Come on. Not like that.”

She turned to him, and all of sudden he felt terrible. Her eyes seemed even bigger than her face, and at the same time they looked lost. “Aw, now, honey,” he said, and it was the first time he had ever called her honey. “You go ahead with that button. It won’t kill me.” Because he realized it wouldn’t. “You feel like opening up the dash, go ahead. We just have to get home.” But her eyes were still big and lost and the tears rolled down. “Oh boy,” he said. In the end he pulled into an IHOP just 10 minutes or so from home. A waitress sat him and the kid down at a table.

Constance had been keeping a stiff upper lip from the car to the table but sitting down seemed to trigger her all over again. Harry figured that normally you’d give a kid in this situation an ice cream or a muffin or a cinnamon bun, but Sandy’s rules made that tricky. He settled for a glass of orange juice, a tall glass. Though, on reflection, the girl wasn’t going to drink it all, so the only reason for choosing a tall glass was that it cost more and she might appreciate the thought.

In fact the sight of the glass made her cry harder. Harry felt the floor drop out: the situation was indeed hopeless. “But what’s the matter?” he said, and by now he was honestly curious. “I bet that’s good orange juice.” Meanwhile the minutes were ticking by. He thought of Sandy, waiting.

“Never seen you cry before,” he said. “Never seen you cry.” People were looking over from other tables. The waitress, who seemed like a nice girl, craned her head as if judging whether to act. Harry wished she would.

Well, he had a lot on his plate. The girl was making a situation, and he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. He stretched his neck a little, one side, then the other; he always stretched his neck before a tough scene because it made him feel like he was getting his frame ready for action. But now he had nothing to do; he kept his hands folded in front of him.

The girl kept on crying, a little louder now, and her chin bobbed out of place every time her breath went in. Like Harry she wasn’t moving, but she sat up the way she did with Roberta at the restaurant.

From two tables away Harry saw a woman get to her feet. His heart became light with happiness. She was in her late-40s, he guessed, and probably understood the matters going on just now. The woman advanced on them, smiling with her mouth wide, and stood over Constance. She didn’t address Harry at all. She proceeded as if he wasn’t there.

The woman had pulled her head down a little, like someone about to drop a curtsy but getting stuck a couple of inches down and deciding to stay that way. Her smile was still wide and the lipstick made a big rim around it. She wore horned-rim glasses made out of dark tortoiseshell; they looked big enough to club a house pet.

“Little girls are special,” the woman said. “Do you know what I mean by special? Because little girls have to be considerate.” She smiled more widely.

The girl’s chin had stopped bobbing when the lady appeared over them. Her breath was still going fast, though. “When you sit and wail because you can’t have ice cream?” the lady said. “Do you remember that other people are sitting here and they are eating their meals?”

“Not ice cream,” Constance said urgently.

Other people. Because grown-ups remember about other people.”

“I don’t want ice cream,” Constance said breathlessly, trying to get out an explanation before the record was all scrambled. And it was true. She didn’t even want that second slice of pie.

“When you wa-a-a-ail nobody else can eat their meals,” the lady said mournfully. “Now isn’t that more important? Than whether you would like ice cream or a milkshake or pie?”

Pie. Constance looked dumbfounded. “No—” she said.

“Do you think about others? At your age you’re old enough to start thinking about others. How old are you?”

Constance was staring at the lady now, and her face was hopeless.

“Are you eight? Because eight is old enough to—”

“Oh, shut up,” Harry said.

The lady goggled at him, and his face got red. He hadn’t expected to say anything. “Well… just shut up,” he added, as if he were building an argument.

“Sir, if you will not mind your child as a child should… and other people have their dining disturbed because, because—”

He just didn’t like the sound of her voice. In fact he hated that kind of voice—people who lectured. So, no, he wasn’t sorry about telling her to shut up. He glared back at the lady, his face cooking like an oven, and his eyes never moved an inch off of hers.

The woman changed gears. “Then, then,” she said, “maybe I will speak with my husband.”

“You speak with your husband,” Harry told her. He didn’t even know what he was saying, but his voice sounded like the parts he’d done in Mesa or Landry’s Wagon or even the old serials. The words ripped out of him. “Right here’s where I’m sitting,” he said. “You point me out to him.” The woman swept her chin away as if he couldn’t be worth a second more of her time. He watched her retreat to her table, and he looked at her husband, who never got out of his chair.

Harry and Constance sat for a while. The waitress still hadn’t come near.

“She thought you wanted pie,” Harry said, meaning the lady. “She didn’t even know that much.” He looked over at Constance. The girl’s face gleamed backed at him because two patches of tears and snot had caked on her cheeks. But she didn’t look unhappy. At least she was smiling and her eyes were clear.

The waitress never did come to their table. Harry almost would’ve liked to stay on there to have some pie himself—the fight had put the thought deeper in his head—but with a jolt he remembered they were running late. He gathered up Constance and the two of them made for the door.

Actually there were two sets of doors, inner and outer. In the space between, where they had a potted plant and the cigarette machines, a man coming in stopped when he saw Harry. The man’s finger flew up and stayed in front of his face, as if he were planning to hypnotize himself. “I know you!” he said. Harry would’ve clapped the man’s shoulder if there had been more space. He liked people who knew him, and he figured most often it made sense to let them know as much and avoid the question of how they knew him. Lately that had changed a bit because of the program, but the man looked a little older than the people who watched the show.

The man was still sighting past his finger at Harry. The words were taking a few seconds longer to arrive than he expected. But then he blurted out, “Palmetto Drums!”

“Yeah,” Harry said, and he gave a big, slow nod, satisfied. “Yep,” Harry added. He shook the man’s hand. On the way to the car he felt warm and happy.

They were late now, no question. He drove a little above the limit, and Constance dialed around on the radio. He had told her it was okay, and she settled on one of the pop stations but it wasn’t too bad. A rock group sang about sugar-sugar and candy being sweet, and it was the kind of tune that was friendly and easy to take in. After a little while Constance remembered about her face and began rubbing off the dried patches.

Twenty-five minutes. They got to the house and Sandy was in no mood.

—Follow C.T. May on Twitter:@CTMay3


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