Ah Sugar



UN­CLE FRANK WAS A FLAM­ING GAY WAITER who col­lected large porce­lain an­i­mals and fancy dolls off the shop­ping chan­nel. There was a lot of fake gold leaf, too. When he was a young man, he left the prairies with his boyfriend, changed his name and went to Cal­i­forn-i-ay, be­fore fi­nally com­ing back to the west. Grandma would never call him by his new name and I of­ten won­der why he ever came back from a place where you could pick fresh fruit any­time, or­anges and grape­fruits from a tree in your back­yard. Some­times I have this vague feel­ing that I might leave too but I would go to New York City where artists dream to go and live in aban­doned ware­houses and I’d sleep in a claw foot bath­tub that sat in the mid­dle of the room un­til I had enough money to buy the wood I’d need to build a loft bed. I’d lie in that bed and won­der why I didn’t move to a place where I could grow my own fruit trees. No­body knows what hap­pened to my un­cle’s boyfriend, no one even knew his name, but my un­cle still worked as a waiter and he could fold a white linen nap­kin like a swan and make you feel like a queen when you were eat­ing at the down­town restau­rant where he worked. His gay apart­ment was near the river and it was a ten-minute walk up or down a hill de­pend­ing on the time of day. Every­one loved him ex­cept some peo­ple in the fam­ily were al­ways threat­en­ing to kill him by ac­ci­dent. Like that time every­one was drink­ing drinks and crack­ing jokes on his con­crete bal­cony imag­in­ing how far fags can fall be­fore they turn into fairies. Dur­ing th­ese joke times I thought I could smell some­thing bit­ter that left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t fully un­der­stand what I was get­ting

a whiff of, but I sure knew it meant dan­ger. They let my soft ears hear what I wasn’t sup­posed to hear, be­cause th­ese sto­ries were stay-in­line sto­ries.

We were all down­stairs in my aunt Rose’s dimly lit basement that was dec­o­rated in that al­ways-ready-for-a-party kind of way. Aunt Rose was scream­ing ah sugar, she wanted us kids to sing ah sugar at the party and I was feel­ing shy be­cause my un­cle Frank’s new girl­friend Birdie was there, but we did it any­ways. We sang our loud­est with the Archies, thrust our hips in and out, side to side. I could see my mom get cold and turn away and some of the adults thought it was funny and we thought it was sexy and we meant ev­ery word that we sang. I pulled up all the courage I could muster and looked over to Birdie when I belted out, I’m go­ing to make your life so sweet, and she gave me a shimmy and a grin that made my heart sing.

There in the basement with the pur­ple shag rug was a paint­ing I fell in love with be­cause you could touch it, it was a paint­ing of Elvis on black vel­vet, and it was soft and hard and the white paint glowed yel­low­ish green. And the frame, the frame was smooth and brown and it was made in Bath, Maine, and it had Eileen’s name on the back. This frame made by Eileen. There was also a steel sup­port pole in the mid­dle of the room and a round bench built around it. Deep pur­ple crushed vel­vet. My aunt had a shrine set up for Elvis and some­times she would put on a record of his and sit on that bench and cry and cry, don’t be cruel, ooohh­hooo to a heart that’s true. But then she’d start laugh­ing and make for a good time. Aunt Rose liked to col­lect clothes and when she needed to clear out her closet she’d send us large green garbage bags full of the clothes she didn’t want any­more. Tonight I am wear­ing ca­nary yel­low pants and a match­ing vest with a baby blue shiny shirt, and thanks to my aunt I feel like a mil­lion bucks.

Af­ter our per­for­mance, my cousin and I were sit­ting at the pressed wood ma­hogany bar, on the tall stools, look­ing at each other in the smoked glass mir­rors be­hind the bar. There were bot­tles of booze and glass shelves with beer and whiskey tum­blers and up­side-down wine glasses in case you wanted to step up your glass of Baby Duck. The adults were all smok­ing and drink­ing and mis­be­hav­ing and my un­cle Frank came over to the bar with Birdie.

She was the tallest woman I had ever seen, you know re­ally el­e­gant like the show girls who danced in feather cos­tumes on the stages of Las Ve­gas. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She had some kind of sexy magic I wanted to be close to. Ev­ery­thing seemed right about

her. Her hair done just so, and when she laughed the air around her sparkled with a qual­ity I couldn’t quite de­scribe yet. My cousin and I were paint­ing our Franken­stein fig­ures, you know the kind of mod­els that you put to­gether with model glue and then you painted them and they glowed when you turned off the lights. Seemed like ev­ery­thing glowed in the dark that year. There were posters too, that you coloured with felt-tipped pens some­one stole from Woolco. You’d stay up too late by your­self colour­ing at the table and no one cared be­cause the adults were high or drunk or just checked out.

Birdie perched on the brown vinyl barstool be­side me cross­ing her legs at the an­kles. I felt like I was un­der a magic spell when she picked up my Franken­stein and said, Frankie, Frankie needs a drink, to my un­cle Carl who was so hand­some, he even had a Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe god­dam mole that’s how hand­some he was with brown skin and black hair that swooped up in a wave just like Elvis. Some­times on Satur­days he’d take me to the city mar­ket and we’d buy fresh crab and the kinds of veg­eta­bles you couldn’t find at Safe­way. The floor of the mar­ket was con­crete and it smelled like fish and cool air un­til you walked into the pro­duce sec­tion and then it smelled fresh and green. Af­ter my un­cle bought what he needed he’d take me to this one same stall ev­ery time where a woman with a kind smile and black hair would sell us small sweet kumquat or­anges in a net bag made of green plas­tic.

Un­cle Carl looked at Birdie and said, com­ing right up, pour­ing her rum and Coke into a sil­ver mir­rored glass and stab­bing a maraschino cherry with a pink plas­tic sword and slid­ing the drink to­ward her in one smooth mo­tion. She plucked that sword out of the glass and held the cherry in front of my mouth and she raised her eye­brows in that spe­cial invit­ing way that made me feel sweet and warm be­tween my legs. I bit off half of the cherry, care­ful so it wouldn’t fall off the sword and she ate the rest of the firm, red fruit, hand­ing me a wink be­fore she slipped away from the bar, my gay un­cle fol­low­ing her.

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