“Sugar Water” by Charles Willeford

I.

It was Sunday dinner at Saint Catherine’s Military Academy and, as usual, I was sitting next to Robbie.  It must have been some kind of a Big Deal that Sunday, because in addition to the watery soup, roast beef and mashed potatoes, there were two desserts: bread pudding and two pieces of hard candy.  I could hardly wait to get to the candy.  In the month I’d been at school it was the first I’d seen.  I ate my bread pudding as quick as possible and picked up my two pieces of candy.  Each piece was about the size of a marble;  one was striped white-and-red and the other white-and-blue.  As I held them ready to pop into my mouth, Robbie grabbed my sleeve and shook his head.

                “Wait.  Tell you later.”  He said it softly, out of the corner of his mouth.  (Talking at the table was forbidden at Saint Catherine’s.) I nodded back, because Robbie had been at the school a much longer time than I had.  Pretending to put the candy in my mouth I palmed it neatly and held it in my fist beneath the table.  When the sister turned her head to belch, like she usually did after each meal, I put both candy balls in my breeches pocket.  (Taking food out of the mess was forbidden at Saint Catherine’s.) The whistle blew, we leaped to attention, and filed out of the mess and into the yard.  Until prayer-time, the rest of the afternoon was ours.

                Robbie jerked his head toward the pepper tree at the far end of the yard.  It was shady under the tree and we sat down on the hard-packed ground.

                “You did that neat, Terence,”  Robbie said.  “I was watching.”    

                “I’m catching on to things around here,”  I replied.  “But why save candy?”

                “Don’t get in a hurry.  I’ll tell you.”  Robbie had an earnest, freckled face and close-cropped reddish hair.  He was four months older than I was, and an inch taller.  His uniform was more than a year old, and he had outgrown it to the point of bursting.

                “Did you ever hear of sugar water?” I shook my head.

                “I didn’t think you did.  It was discovered before your time. Last summer.  You know how long candy lasts if you suck it—?”

                “Not very long.”

                “Right.  Not very long.  And if you chew it up it doesn’t last that long.  Well, if you put the same candy in a jar of water and melt it you’ve got sugar water.  By sipping a little at a time the candy’ll last all afternoon.  See?”

                “Gee, that’s a pretty neat idea.”

                “Want to go in on a jar with me?”

                “Sure.”

                Robbie had a half-gallon ex-mayonaise jar, and the lid to it, hidden deep in the hedge flanking the back gate.  He had hidden the jar solely for the purpose of sugar water.  We got the jar, washed it clean at the drinking fountain, filled it with water, and dropped in our four pieces of hard candy.  The four balls rolling around in the bottom of the jar looked mighty small.  For the next two hours we took turns shaking the jar.  There was a ball game and the rest of the students were either playing or watching the game.  We sat under the shade of the pepper tree making sugar water.  It was slow, tedious work.  At last, there were only four white specks drifting about in the half-gallon of water.

                “Let’s try it,” Robbie said.

                “Go ahead.”  My arms were aching from shaking.

                Robbie unscrewed the lid and sipped.  Without saying anything he passed the jar to me.  I took a sip.  I took another.  I passed the jar back to Robbie.

                There wasn’t a trace of sugar in the taste of the water!

                Robbie took one more sip to make certain, and then threw the jar as far as he could.  It didn’t break, but the water spilled onto the ground.  He shook his head sadly.

                “It worked last summer,” he said, “but maybe we had more than four pieces of candy.”

                I knew he was lying, but I shrugged away my disappointment. Robbie was my only friend at Saint Catherine’s.

                “Let’s go watch the ball game.”  I said.

II.

The following month I was taken out of Saint Catherine’s.  It was good to be home again.  I had never understood exactly why I had been placed in the military school in the first place.

                At home there was Granny; Joe, my step-father, and my mother.  Mother was in bed all the time and Granny and Joe worked.  We had a colored maid named Mary Ellen and she looked after Mother.  About once a week my uncle dropped in for dinner.  Uncle Roy was a single man at the time and always put away a good-sized meal when he visited us.  It was getting close to my birthday.  My eighth birthday.

                “What do you want for your birthday, Sonny?” Granny asked me.

This was a night when we were all sitting around the supper table.  I thought for a minute, trying to decide what I wanted.

                “Sugar water,” I said.

                “What’s that?” Granny was amused.

                “Sugar water,” I said.

                “Don’t even talk to him, Mrs. Lowey,” Joe said.  “You can’t get any sense out of him.  He doesn’t know what he wants anyway, and anything you get him he’ll tear up anyway.”  Joe sopped up the gravy on his plate with a piece of bread.  I didn’t say anything, but you were forbidden to sop gravy at Saint Catherine’s.

                “Maybe he likes sugar water,” Uncle Roy ventured.

                “He doesn’t like anything,” Joe said.  “He’s nothing but a spoiled brat.”

                “No he isn’t.  He’s a sweet boy.  All right, Sonny, tell Granny what you want for your birthday.”  Granny was sitting next to me and she put an arm around my shoulders and kissed the top of my head.

                “Sugar water,” I said.

                “See?” Joe said, nodding vigorously.  “Nuts.  The boy should still be at Saint Catherine’s.  They know how to handle kids like him.”

                “Shush,” Granny said.  “He’s sweet.”

                “Pass the meat,” Uncle Roy said.

                “I’d better take Ellen her tray.” Granny left the table.

                “Pass the potatoes,” Uncle Roy said.

                “What he needs for his birthday is a stick,” Joe said.

                “And if you don’t mind, the gravy, please,” Uncle Roy said.

III.

My birthday came on a Saturday.  At the breakfast table my presents were piled on my chair.  Mother, thin and pale, and wearing a rose-colored robe, was sitting at the table drinking coffee.  Mary Ellen was stirring grits at the kitchen stove.  Granny, all in black, with white collar and cuffs (Granny was a saleslady), was ready to go to work.  Joe, in overalls (Joe was a mechanic), was sitting opposite Mother and eating his breakfast of eggs and grits.  He indicated my presents with a hairy hand.

                “There you are, Sonny.  Happy Birthday.”

                “Happy Birthday, Sonny.” Granny kissed me on the top of my head.

                “Happy Birthday, Sonny,” Mother said.  “Hand me a piece of that toast, will you please, Joe?”

                I opened my presents in the order that I picked them up.  There was a wooden racing car from Joe, a tin motor-boat that worked on canned heat from Mother, and two sets of long underwear from Granny.

                “Where is the sugar water?” I asked, naturally enough.

                “See?” Joe said.  “You can’t satisfy the kid.”

                “You didn’t really want any sugar water, Sonny,” Granny said.

                “If I didn’t want any sugar water why would I say I wanted sugar water?” I asked my question bitterly.  “You asked me what I wanted, and I said what I wanted!” I started to cry.

                “What’s all the to-do about sugar water?” Mother asked.

                “He’s spoiled .  That’s what’s the matter.  Spoiled rotten,”  Joe said.

                Suddenly, viciously, I swept the presents to the floor.  Joe slapped me across the face so hard I bumped against the wall.  Granny hugged me to her ample stomach.

                “Leave him alone, Joe,” Mother said, and poured another cup of coffee.

                “Don’t you even touch this child!” Granny glared at Joe.

                “Here’s your grits, Sonny.” Mary Ellen set a steaming plateful of grits by my place.

                “I’m going to work,” Joe said.  He pushed back from the table.

                “Good-bye, Honey,” Mother said.  Joe kissed her on the cheek, left the kitchen, and slammed the back door.

                “Now you get right back into bed, Ellen.”  Granny made me sit down.  “And you eat your breakfast, Sonny.”  Granny rushed down the back stairs before Joe drove away.  He sometimes did and she had to ride the bus.

                I didn’t eat any breakfast because I wasn’t hungry.  Later on that morning I played with the two toys.  The wheels broke off the wooden racer in less than hour.  The motor-boat worked fine in the bathtub, but I wasn’t allowed to light the matches, and after five or six times Mary Ellen quit coming into the bathroom to light the canned heat.

                “I have other fish to fry,” she said.

                I threw both of the toys down the airshaft.  I don’t remember ever wearing the long underwear.  In California long underwear is unnecessary.  Even Granny should have known that much.

IV.

It took another ten years before I actually learned how to make sugar water.

                It takes a combination of sugar, blood, sweat, crushed hearts, burned archives, sweltering heat, icicles, molten steel, water, grape juice, gin, wine, melted cheese, cherries, and tears.  Plenty of tears.

                And then you can hardly taste the sugar.

Charles Willeford was and is the sine qua non of hard boiled writers, his writings and his life a testament to the noir lifestyle.  He truly is the Godfather of noir fiction.

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