Sugar


Rebar and I worked the day shift at the sugar refinery. Afternoons when he took too many pills, I’d give him a lift home. Once, we passed the high school where cheerleaders were making a pyramid on the football field. He suggested that we grab some beer and watch. Then he shot me an all-knowing look. “You’re worried about Roach,” he said. He had a nickname for everyone, including my wife. He’d never met her and I planned to keep it that way.

“I’m not worried about anything,” I said and swung into a supermarket across from the school. There were birds all over the parking lot eating what the kids had left behind at lunch. Inside, we argued over which beer to buy and then waited in a long line with a twelve-pack of cheap stuff. Rebar read the celebrity rags and showed me pictures of what some actors looked like fat and thin. Time moved slowly in that place. Ahead of us, a wiry guy puffed on a cigarette. His hands were blistered and red like he’d dunked them in boiling water. When it was his turn, the checker said, “You can’t smoke in here.” She was a kid, sixteen maybe.

“It’s electronic,” he protested.

Rebar looked up and said, “Law’s a law, dude,” then went back to the magazine.

The guy unrolled a sack from his back pocket and stared at us while the girl bagged his groceries: bulk quinoa, cans of frozen limeade, a plastic jug of tequila. He paid, then went outside and stood by the shopping carts, his sack slung over his shoulder like a purse. When we passed, he said, “Hey, shitbirds.”

We kept walking. At the car, Rebar tensed up, turned around, and went back. I put the beer in the backseat and called after him, but he kept on until he and the man were standing too close. They seemed to be talking and I thought maybe they were working it out when the man head butted him and Rebar reeled into the parking lot, holding his hand over his nose. He staggered back, blood, heavy as sap, dripping between his fingers. In the glovebox, he found some napkins to soak it up.

“No decency,” he said. “There’s no fucking code anymore.”

We drove across the street to the high school and parked in the bus zone, facing the field. A few boys were sitting in the bleachers watching the cheerleaders. We weren’t from their time, so we just sat in the car looking out through the windshield. Rebar put in an old mix tape and started singing along badly to Black Flag. When he screamed, “Revenge,” some of the kids looked over at us. He flipped them off and then flipped down the visor mirror and examined his nose. “I look like shit,” he said.

We drank another beer, but the mood had changed. Now the girls were all just standing around talking and collecting their things. We drove out to Rebar’s place and came upon a crow tugging at some road kill on the double yellow. When I beeped the horn it flew straight into the grill. The impact felt like a hand on my shoulder.

Rebar looked out the back window. “Is it dead?”

In the rear view, dark feathers blew around in the shitty air.

“I think so,” I said.

We cut through the old downtown of antique malls and thrift shops, past the Stag, where Rebar had met the tattooed woman who would become his wife. Then it was just a long line of Mexican restaurants and dollar stores, truck dealerships, auto body shops, the billboard for an Indian casino buried deep in the hills. The refinery was miles behind us now, but its black smoke still hung in the sky like a big dead cloud.

We passed the ruins of the old sugar mill, where our dads used to work, and Rebar stared out at the collapsed buildings and said, “I fucking love my wife, dude.” Then he looked at me for a long time, a napkin stuffed in one nostril. I kept driving. The road went a long way into the country and disappeared into the hills.

I dropped Rebar at his shabby little cottage. I told him to take the rest of the beer, but he was already carrying it across the lawn.

“Tell Roach hi,” he said over his shoulder. Then he waved at me weirdly.

As I drove home, into the shadow of the refinery, I thought about how I couldn’t tell if he was waving for help or goodbye.  

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