Sugar Cage

Sugar Cage

by Connie Fowler
     
 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Washington Post Startling and beautiful...Sugar Cage is bold, honest, and intelligent.

Amy Tan Within the first two pages, you know, without a doubt, that SUGAR CAGE is the genuine article. And that feeling stays with you Up to the last, glorious page....If writing is a gift, then Connie May Fowler must have been bestowed with the gift of ten muses. I'm amazed at the breadth of humanity she writes about, the uncanny way she captures the rhythm of inner lives — a reluctant seer of future tragedies, a disappointed wife, a Haitian caneworker, an abandoned young boy, a philandering but loving husband, a dying intellectual, a grieving widow and a merry one, a soldier facing death, and a little girt who is haunted by the ghosts of her parents' past. She weaves this unlikely community of characters into a mesmerizing story, brimming with magic, humor, and always sympathy, showing us the characters' loneliness, their prejudices, and their circumstantial connections to one another. And just when we think that love and hope have failed them all, we realize we were wrong. They have been saved-only God and mambos know how bound and uplifted by the same dream of humanity And then we know what Connie May Fowler knew all along: This is a story about all of us.

The Kansas City Star Don't miss a single word.

Lee Smith Reading Sugar Cage is like falling under a powerful spell. Echoes of Zora Neale Hurston can be heard in this incantatory prose.

San Francisco Chronicle Mixing magic with touches of political realism, Connie May Fowler has written a strangely beautiful novel about love and human frailties.

Chicago Tribune A beautiful, taboo love story.

ALA Booklist A first novel suffused with the lushness and heat of a Florida night. Fowler introduces her unusual characters one by one, letting several of them narrate this muscular, mystic, and alternately hilarious, charming, and melodramatic saga....A seductive and impressive debut.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sugar Cage is one of the most accomplished, haunting fictional debuts since Amy Tan's The Jay Luck Club.

Kansas City Star To read Connie May Fowler's Sugar Cage is to be a child, sitting on the bottom porch steps on a hot summer evening, listening to the grownups talking....Hold quiet, save it all to sort through later, but don't miss a single word.

Alice Hoffman Here is a wonderful book by a wonderful writer. Sugar Cage is a true original, filled with life on every single page.

Roy Hoffman
If "Sugar Cage" is a novel about the intertwining of people's lives -- and their dammed-up dreams -- it is also a novel about voices, for the characters take turns at the narration. One must admire Ms. Fowler for trying to capture these diverse points of view....The effect, however, is more often that of a collection of monologues than a dovetailing of perspectives. And the reason is simple: some of these people are much better than others at holding our attention....While it is good for Ms. Fowler's characters to have their hearts free of haunting, her readers might wish that their voices had haunted us more. -- New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
First novelist Fowler creates a lively chorus of Southern voices in this engrossing tale of domestic life, civil rights and the supernatural in 1960s Florida. (Mar.)
Library Journal
This first novel explores the stickily enduring bonds of love. Nine characters speak in alternating chapters: a reluctant psychic; a selfish, philandering husband; a sensitive, eccentric one; a finicky undertaker; a young soldier; an unhappy little girl; a Haitian migrant; and two widows, one merry, one grief stricken. This unlikely cast inhabits a narrative spanning 30 years. Some, like Soleil Marie, a sugarcane laborer, or Inez, who can't avoid seeing the future, speak with startling vividness. Others, like the child Luella, are less convincing. All are trapped behind the sweetly poisoned bars of the ``sugar cage''--a ``sign'' in the dregs of one character's glass. Inez spots it: ``bars glistening like white sand,'' a sure sign ``she was going to let love eat her up.'' Runaway emotions devour some, others struggle to both love and survive. A Southern gothic tale, magically imaginative, yet harshly real. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/91.-- Lenore Hart, Machipongo, Va.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780671748098
Publisher:
Washington Square Press
Publication date:
03/01/1993
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
0.75(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

From: Sweet Poison

Emory Looney

This here, in the early summer of 1960, is how it ended. I mean, there was lots of other fights after this one. Other reasons why I decided I couldn't take no more of my daddy. But what happened on the field that day underneath a hot sun with the whole town watching — that was the event that ended my childhood. The other fights were just gas in the wind.

I think that on the first day of summer vacation a lot of other kids sleep in. They dream about all those ball games they'll play until way after dark or about swimming so long their fingers wrinkle up like crocodile skin or about playing pool at the colored pool hall without their mamas ever knowing about it. But me, I didn't have time for any of that. I woke up as soon as the sun started shining through the navy-blue curtains Mama had sewed a couple of weeks before. They were blue with white jets, and they were neat because if you squinted your eyes as the wind blew them you'd think that the jets were real, that they were zooming in amazing flight patterns before your very eyes.

But on this first day of freedom from school I couldn't be bothered with imaginary jets because, see, it was also Game Day. Tiama's yearly Free Men and Prisoners Baseball Game. In just three hours, criminals and businessmen would walk together, play together.

I got out of bed and pulled open my curtains. Our house is across the street from the fed and my bedroom is situated so as I can see it perfectly clear. I looked past the oleander in our yard and spied on the guard in his tower. I wondered if he was itching as bad as I was to get to the game. I wondered if the prisoners were already in their baseball getups. Maybe they were practicing pitching and batting in the prison yard. Last year my class took a field trip over there, and it was real different seeing those convicts under those circumstances. I'd seen them only at the game before that. But being behind those huge granite walls, hearing not just one but two monster gates clang shut behind me, and seeing the prisoners in their rec room leering at us with cigarette smoke shading their eyes — well, I knew there was another side to those guys, one that didn't show at the game. But that was okay. It didn't really scare me. In fact, it made me want to play in that game more than ever. Just imagine pitching to some guy who was so mean he'd just as soon knife you as look at you. I'd spent hours supposing what I'd do if after they played the scratchy National Anthem record over the PA and as the two teams went to shake hands a murderer or a car thief or a bank robber squeezed my hand till it hurt, and growled, "If you tag any of us you're a dead man." And in my mind I always laughed straight in his face. And then I'd be the first baseman and like a major leaguer I'd do it: I'd tag the dog-faced convict a clear two feet from the base, and the crowd would roar as the ump screamed, "Out!"

And see, I had more than just a faint notion that all this might come true. I had kind of a guarantee from my daddy. After the last game, after Tiama got whipped for the eighth straight year, my daddy, he said to me, "Shit, son, next year we're going to put you out on that field."

And I was going to hold him to it. Yes, sir. A dream come true. He'd be so proud of me.

But I couldn't do it straightforward. He could be real disagreeable. I would have to coddle him into a good mood and then remind him.

That's why I couldn't lay there dreaming about long days of freedom with nothing to do but fool around town. I had to devise a plan.

As I stood at my window watching that guard pace, I decided the one thing I'd seen Daddy do that he seemed to really enjoy was eat. So it was easy. I'd get into his good graces by fixing breakfast. I thought, Do something with eggs and toast and ketchup and tomatoes. Keep his cup filled with hot coffee and rub Mama's shoulders. Don't make any faces, even behind their backs, and don't pop the question until after he has lit up his first cigarette.

It was a good plan. So I put on some shorts and my Mickey Mantle number 7 New York Yankees T-shirt. I went into the bathroom and shut the door behind me real quietly. Mama had recently bought a bunch of yellow ceramic fish and hung them on the bathroom's green walls. The fish had long black eyelashes and red puckered lips — not like any fish I'd ever seen. They looked real stupid swimming above the commode. But Mama thought they were gorgeous and said she was going to go downtown to the Woolworth's and buy those fuzzy commode covers in a shade of yellow that would match the fish. "That'll look damn good," she'd told my daddy.

I turned on the faucet and ran some water over my face. I looked up into the medicine cabinet mirror and stared closely, checking for the possibility of whiskers. I had just turned fourteen. Seemed like what Mama called peach fuzz should show up any day. But no, all I had was a couple more pimples. I suspected that the pimples was getting in the way of whisker growth. Last week Mama bought me a tube of that stuff Clearasil. She hadn't said a thing. One day I come home from school and there it is, sitting on the table by my bed, next to my goldfish bowl that was empty because Oscar the Fourth had recently kicked the bucket. Oscar One, Two, and Three I had buried in the backyard, kind of like a funeral. But by the time Oscar the Fourth died I'd had it with goldfish. Him I just flushed down the toilet. As I watched his shiny orange body swirl down and away, I screamed at Mama, "Don't you get me any more fish. " And even though Mama was nice enough to buy me something like Clearasil even after I'd yelled at her about the fish, I don't think the stuff worked. I still had pimples and I still didn't have any whiskers. I looked over at Mama's ceramic kisser fish. I thought about how I had convinced myself that Oscar the Fourth would live a long, healthy life just because I had wanted him to. Then I thought, Well, maybe my plan won't work. Maybe nothing I'd do would make any difference. But then I said to myself, No, Emory. You may have a baby's butt face, but you're good. Good enough, old enough, to play ball.

I opened the medicine cabinet, and there between the shaving cream and a tube of lipstick and some iodine was Daddy's Aqua Velva. I took it out and splashed some on my face. I patted it on hard the way Daddy always did. Mama likes to say that I'm the spit and image of Daddy. I don't recognize it so well. Except maybe the head hair. We was both thick with it. I stared at my aging face and deepened my voice. "Well, Daddy, what order do you think we'll be batting in?"

And I heard his voice trickle in my mind: "I'm not sure, son, but let's get going. We don't want to keep the team waiting."

I put up the Aqua Velva and knew I'd make Mama and him proud. I'd play almost as good as Daddy. Might hit a home run, maybe off Ezekiel Williams, he's the state pen's star player. Hell, Jack Higgensmith, owner of the white pool hall, he'd probably give me a few games on the house. Maybe even slip me a beer or two.

See, in Tiama, this ball game was the biggest jag in town. Prisons, that's all we had. The state pen, the fed, the women's prison, the juvenile detention center, plus the city jail. My teacher, Mrs. Hoffman, she said she suspected that was some sort of American record, all these prisons.

St. Augustine, that's north of here, they're known as the oldest city in the United States. They get lots of money that way. Dumb Yankees come down here and spend hard, cold cash to see Ponce de León's Fountain of Youth, when we all know it isn't anything more than a spring fed by some stupid river. So one year the Tiama City Council got disgusted with St. Augustine's oldest this and oldest that. They decided to lure some of those tourists down here and they started a town motto, "Prison Capital of the World."

And they made another decision. They said that from then on, the prison team would be sort of a criminal all-star team. No more would just prisoners from the state pen play. But the feds and the locals too. That way everybody but the women and the juvenile delinquents would be represented. And I'd be there. And I'd help us win.

I was pretty confident as I walked into the kitchen and threw open the icebox door. I got the egg carton out and found Mama's big red mixing bowl beneath the sink. I cracked open the first egg, then another. I cracked four eggs in all, as I'd heard Daddy speak fondly of four-egg omelets. But since I didn't know an omelet from a hole in the ground, I planned to scramble these.

I stared down into the bottom of the bowl and realized I'd landed four perfect yolks. Each was unbroken and glistening. Good sign. Maybe means four homers. A splash of milk, a pinch of salt, two dashes of Tabasco. A few whirls with my fork was a tour around the bases. I'd watched Mama do this a million times.

I buttered two pieces of bread and put them on a cookie sheet. Broiled toast. I buttered a third piece for me. I sliced a tomato and set it on a plate, just like Mama always did. I figured it was all going perfect, until I realized I had no idea how to make the damn coffee. Potential strike.

I ran my finger along the butter and then stuck it in the sugar bowl. I sucked the sugar butter off my finger. Through my head I tried to piece together what I'd seen Mama do. I couldn't figure out if she put the coffee in the water and it boiled through the basket, or if the coffee sat in the basket, totally separated from the water. It was a mystery, but I knew if I screwed it up Daddy would never let me forget it.

The game isn't over yet, I coached myself.

I heard the toilet flush. I froze. Please, God, I prayed, don't let it be Daddy, not without my plan, my cooking, fully executed. Someone was standing behind me. I held my breath. I turned around. Thank you, God, it was Mama.

On Mother's Day I'd given her a rose-colored quilted bathrobe, because Rose was her name, and she wore it now, even though it barely stretched across her big belly, because she was pregnant. Both she and Aunt Eudora was pregnant, and it made for some awful times, believe me.

"Well, look at you, sweetheart. What's all this, dressed and combed and cooking?" Then she sniffed real deep. "Oh my God, you're wearing your daddy's Aqua Velva." She smiled like she knew all my secrets, and then messed up my hair. I pulled away and wished with all my heart I hadn't put that stuff on.

"I just thought I'd help out," I grumbled.

But she ignored me. She just sat down at the table and groaned. The table was one of those aluminum jobs with a yellow surface that sort of looked like ice cubes. And the chairs were the same yellow, but plastic with about five years' worth of cigarette burns. Sitting in the middle of the table was a little plastic pot blooming with faded yellow plastic daisies. She sure was fond of yellow. She yawned and then rested both hands on her belly. "Sweetheart, reach up and get me that peanut butter."

Lately, her pregnancy had put a strain on me. Maybe it was her and Eudora being pregnant together. I became their hands, their feet. They would have made me eat for them if they could have swung it.

For instance, if Eudora was home by herself and needed her and junior's laundry hung to dry, what do you think happened? That's right, no matter what I was doing-listening to the radio, geography homework, getting ready to play ball-Mama would say, "Emory, you go on over to Aunt Eudora's house and help her hang those clothes right now."

And at home all I heard was, "Emory, get me a cold drink." "Emory, help me put that roast in the oven." "Emory, honey, don't you think you could get Daddy's beer for him."

And sometimes when Daddy would come home late from singing or drinking in the bars, I would hear Mama yell at him, "Listen, you son of a bitch, you're the one that got me in this condition. You'd better straighten up until I get out of it."

But when the order came for the peanut butter, I didn't roll my eyes. I went over to the wooden cupboard that was painted white, with yellow daisy decals stuck on the doors — kitchens needed a theme, Mama liked to say — and found the jar beside a big box of Epsom salt, and I got it down and then fished a spoon out of the dish drainer and handed it to her as nice as could be and very politely asked, "You want bread or a saltine with that?"

"No, honey, this is fine."

"Mama?" I hid my finger, which wasn't entirely clean of sugar butter, in the tail of my T-shirt.

"Yes, honey?"

"How do I make coffee?"

"Are you kidding me? Are you really fixing us breakfast?" she asked as she hooked a lump of peanut butter near the bottom of the jar.

"Yes, ma'am," I said. But I offered no reason.

"On second thought, go ahead and get me those saltines," she said.

I walked back over to the cupboard. They were way up there, on the top shelf. Since she got pregnant she'd been buying the giantsize saltines — those in the big tin can. I jumped up and batted it off the shelf like it was a basketball. I started to toss it to her, but something inside me said, "No."

Instead I set the can on the counter, popped off the lid, tore open the wax wrap, and arranged a few crackers in a circle on a plate — I wanted everything to look nice.

I set them in front of her.

"Thanks, sweetheart," she said. Then she bit into one. I looked at her close. Her eyes was puffy and red, like she'd stayed up crying. She always looked like that the morning after Daddy came home late and they'd had a fight. Some of the fights were loud, with pushing and shoving. During those I turned up my radio or buried my head in my pillows.

"You been crying again, Mama?" I asked her, but she didn't hear me.

She was just looking sad. She stared out the kitchen window and out the side yard, as if me or the ticking wall clock or the icebox motor that had just clanked on didn't exist. Then, with a sudden loud voice, she blurted, "Coffee. Sure. I'll show you how to do that. Just fill up the pot, up to where the water line is, where the inside of the pot isn't dull."

Okay, I could do that, and I did.

"Got it?" she asked.

"Got it."

"Now put six scoops of coffee in the basket and set the basket in the pot so that it stands straight up."

So I did that, but I wondered if she was playing a joke on me. "How's that going to make coffee?" I asked.

"Because you heat the water until it boils up through the basket."

I should have known it was something simple like that. My mind tends to go for the complicated. I turned the burner on high. I liked the way the blue flame stretched flat when I set the pot on it.

"No, no, honey, not on high."

"Why not?" I figured Daddy would be up any minute; I wanted the coffee done.

"Because if you put too much heat to it, you won't get a gentle boil, you'll get a rumble. Nothing left but mess."

I guess I have to admit that Mama talked me through that breakfast. At least got me to first base. I never knew scrambling eggs could be so tricky. I thought all I had to do was shake the pan. I didn't know about scraping them off the bottom with a spatula. "Emory, eggs stick. They burn to the bottom of the pan." And then she said, like it was a matter of life or death, "Everything sticks in that good-for-nothing pan."

But I had no time to figure out why that was important. I had to keep on with my plan. So I finished those eggs, and Mama had me put a lid on the pan to keep them warm.

When that was done I looked around the kitchen, impatient, anxious for Daddy to wake up, but I didn't dare make any out-of-the-way noise, for fear of riling him. I stared down at the linoleum floor. It was supposed to look like little blocks of white and yellow tile, but it didn't fool anybody. Mama was a good housekeeper, but this floor was dirty. She was forever saying, "With you two traipsing dirt in and out of here and spilling whatever you drink or eat, it's a wonder I can clean this floor at all."

But standing there, I realized there was also bacon grease on the floor. I'd say that was her mess, but I knew I'd better never point that out.

I watched Mama finish off the peanut butter, and as she screwed the lid back on the jar she said, "This child is going to be strong. All it wants is peanut butter, spinach, liver."

"What about me, what did I want?" I asked.

"You were a sugar baby. I gained fifty pounds carrying you. God, I was fat. But I just couldn't get enough sugar. Candy bars, honey buns, ice cream. And your daddy just kept feeding it to me. He'd say, 'If that baby inside you wants another honey bun, by God, he's going to get one.' Your daddy always knew you were going to be a boy." She stretched her arms over her head and yawned real big.

Her words surprised me, talking about Daddy knowing things about me before I was born. I wanted to ask Mama if they fought a lot when she was pregnant with me or if there was a time things was just quiet in the house, but I couldn't bring myself to ask.

Mama looked at the wall clock. Actually it was a plastic red rooster with a clock for a stomach. The clock ticked real loud, so that early in the morning or around midnight, when everybody was asleep, it shouted at you.

"Mama, when I was born, Daddy was a policeman, wasn't he?"

She reached for her cigarettes, and I thought I saw her face soften. She lit one up. "Yes, sir, he was. He was on the motorcycle patrol up in St. Augustine. The handsomest man on the force."

"Why isn't he a cop now? Why's he selling cars?" I asked.

She looked at the cigarette like she was studying it. "He had an accident. A bad one. Snapped his leg in two and called it quits." Then in a louder voice she said, "And speaking of your father, if he doesn't get his lazy ass out of bed, he's going to miss the game."

"Whose lazy ass are you talking about?" said my daddy. He was standing in the doorway, rubbing his hand across his blond and white chest hairs. He looked hung over; his eyes were red and half shut, like he was in pain.

I immediately felt angry. I thought the possibility of a foul ball was rolling around on my tongue.

"There's scrambled eggs in the pan and toast in the basket. Here's your plate." Mama tapped the table, and I handed him the dish with its sliced tomatoes. "Emory fixed breakfast this morning. Even the coffee. Awfully nice of you, Emory," Mama said.

Daddy grunted. "What's the boy cooking for? Next damn thing I know, you'll have him sewing ruffles on those apron strings of yours.

"Emory, get me a Coca-Cola out of the icebox, please," Mama said. "At least I'm here when he needs me. That's more than some people in this room can say."

Daddy sat down at the table and didn't look at nobody. He just mixed all his food into one big heap and then reached for the saltshaker that was shaped like a cactus. You always knew which was the salt and which was the pepper because the pepper was one of those Mexican sombreros. "Jesus Christ, Rose, get off my back. I just woke up. Emory, don't we have any ketchup? I need some ketchup."

I handed Mama the Coke and she patted my hand. "Get Daddy some ketchup, Emory."

I beelined back to the icebox and stuck my tongue out at the OJ carton just to take off some pressure. I got a Coca-Cola for myself and the ketchup for Daddy.

I set the ketchup on the table and then, like it was no big deal, sat back down.

Mama leaned back in her chair and yawned again. Daddy leaned over his plate and said, "Jesus, what's that smell?" Mama just grinned and winked at me. And I wished with all my heart that I'd never put that Aqua Velva stuff on.

Then Mama said, "Well, I guess I'd better get dressed soon, if Eudora and I are going to make the game. What are you wearing, Charlie, your band shirt? You want me to iron it?"

Daddy nodded. Then he tried the coffee. "Good coffee, son." He set down his cup. He lit a Camel. He inhaled, and then, with his eyes almost slits, he blew a long stream of smoke out of his nose. Dragon head, I thought.

"Emory, what are you doing drinking a Coca-Cola this early in the morning? You're too young to be drinking cold drinks so early in the day," Mama complained.

"Oh, Jesus Christ, Rose, leave the boy alone. Hell, in a couple of years he'll be old enough to perform the old inand-out, if he isn't already." Daddy slapped my arm and laughed.

I squirmed. I stared at the cold yellow patterns of the kitchen table. And then I thought, Well, he does. seem in a pretty good mood. There's your opening. I rolled the Coke bottle between my palms. I decided it would do me no good to put it off. I might as well hit it straight. "Daddy, I was thinking." I made real sure my voice wasn't shaking. "You know how last year Mr. Lewis and his son both played on the Free Men's team? And this year, the prisoners, they're going to be tough, coming from all the different prisons. And so, what about it? This year, you and me? They could probably use us both." My heart was pounding. I worked at keeping my face steady. In my mind my bat cracked hard and loud against a well-thrown ball.

Daddy didn't say a word. He stared at his half-finished breakfast. I figured the ball was sailing through the air, somewhere over midfield. Still silent, he soaked up some tomato guts with his toast. He chewed. The only sounds were him eating, the rooster ticking on the wall, the icebox clanking on, and a mockingbird outside warbling a catcall.

I looked at Mama, who was completely ignoring me and the entire situation. As if it was a normal day, she just poured herself some more Coke. I noticed one cuff of her housecoat was torn. And Daddy kept on with his breakfast. I was about to think they'd both gone deaf on me, when Daddy finally said, "Look here, Emory, your mother insists on going to the game. I don't want her and Eudora up in those stands in their condition without a man. It looks like you're the only man available. I'm afraid you're going to have to sit this game out."

"What about junior? Why doesn't he sit with them?" I countered, hoping the ball, by some miracle, was still in play.

"Because he's the umpire this year."

Mama started laughing. They do that a lot. Daddy says something that's not at all funny, but Mama laughs anyway. She took a long drag off her Salem. She struggled up from the table and walked over to the sink. She turned on the faucet and waved the cigarette underneath the water. She tossed the soggy butt into the garbage. She looked very pleased. "Well, I'm going to go get dressed. Emory, pick up your father's breakfast dishes when he's through."

And with that, she waltzed out of the kitchen. Daddy swished some coffee around in his mouth. Then he grinned at me, like all of life was one big lemon-colored joke.

So I'd struck out. And as you can imagine, I was in none too good of a mood. There I was, sitting in the wooden bleachers of the Flagler Ball Field between two pregnant ladies. There was Daddy. Out on the field. Throwing practice balls, wearing his Charlie Looney and the Rockets band shirt, acting like he was a big hero.

I cracked my knuckles, partly because I knew it irritated Mama, and decided to try to ignore the ballplayers if I could. But there wasn't much else to look at. Clouds and sky and sun and the Tiama water tower. It sat out in a field just north of the ballpark. Recently the city had painted it white and written on it in blazing red letters PRISON CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. And on the very tip-top of the tower was a cross made out of water pipe. They'd painted it red too. When they did that with the cross my mama said, "Stupid sons of bitches. Mixing religion and justice. As if they can really compete with St. Augustine."

I let out a big long huff, hoping that Mama and Eudora would sense my unhappiness. They did, but it didn't get me anywhere. "Emory, you might as well just sit back and enjoy the situation, because it sure as hell isn't going to change," Mama said.

That made me mad, but I knew better than to smart off, so I said, "I'm burning up."

And she said, "Well, we are too."

Because of the bad mood I was in, I thought, At least you two have some protection. They were both wearing big floppy hats. Mama's was white and had a polka-dot scarf bandana around the brim. I looked up at it. The sun almost made the 'cloth glow. I shaded my eyes.

Mama was sweating bad. The color in her cheeks seemed to seep out with the sudden appearance of new sweat beads.

"Mama, are you all right?"

"Yes, honey, I just need to keep drinking this water," she said.

I slipped off my tennis shoes and decided to try to forget I wasn't on the field. I looked at the crowd. People were joking and shouting back and forth. Some were drinking beers, others Cokes. Popcorn and hot-dog smells mixed in with Mama's and Aunt Eudora's perfumes. I knew a lot of the kids, but I didn't want to talk to them since I so desperately didn't want to be one of them today. Mama said, "Here come the convicts." They were jogging out onto the field like they were a bunch of major leaguers, like their pictures were on baseball cards and not post office walls. But their dugout told the real story. Three prison guards stood watch, double-barreled rifles resting in their arms. A long time ago when I was little, I had asked Daddy why those men stood around with guns, and he had said, "For just in case." I looked at the prisoners for familiar faces — convicts who had played last year or maybe some I'd seen when we took that prison field trip. There were a few new ones, but the greats were back. Ezekiel, he was a colored man doing thirty years for rape or armed robbery, I don't know which. He was a topnotch slugger. Daddy said he probably could have played major league if he hadn't gotten in trouble. And Weezil Smith, he was a tiny, pale white man. But damn, he could run. Bobby Schaeffer had worked in the shipyard until a few weeks before the game. Last year the low-down scum had played for the Free Men. Made their only home run. Everybody said that was why he got himself thrown in the city Jail. just in time for the game. Daddy said he bitched and moaned for months that the Free Men was all just a bunch of losers and he would never play for them again. So about a month before the game he starts getting in trouble. Overparks right in front of City Hall. Doesn't pay the ticket. Flies forty in a twenty-five-mile-an-hour school zone. Doesn't pay the ticket. Gets drunk down at the pool hall. Breaks up chairs. Breaks a pool cue. Rips the felt right off a table. What's the city going to do? Put him in jail. Just like he wants. You know the Prisoner Selecting Committee had to love it. I watched him especially close. He was grinning from ear to ear, just trying to make the Free Men eat dirt.

Then Eudora interrupted me by putting her red-painted fingernails on my sunburned leg. She said, "Emory, put this on Aunt Eudora's shoulders, will you?" She pulled one of Junior's white handkerchiefs out of her purse and dipped it in Mama's paper cup of ice water. She wrung it out over my feet. The cold water felt like needles as it hit my hot skin.

"Jesus, Eudora," Mama said.

Eudora did not acknowledge my feet or Mama's comment. "So I don't know what to do," she said as I put the wet white square over her shoulders that were slowly turning pink. "Junior says I can't call him junior anymore. He keeps screaming his real name is Burl, which it is, but Lord, after all these years I'm supposed to remember to call him Burl?"

"Well, it is his real name, Eudora. Give a sick man his peace," Mama said.

Eudora shook her head. Her eyes clouded. "Oh, Rose, you just don't know how bad it is. The other morning, he was in the bathroom for what seemed close to an hour. I kept saying, 'Junior, baby, you all right in there?' He kept saying yes, but I didn't believe him, so I finally just busted in on him. My God, Rose, he was bleeding. Bleeding out his butt. Turned the toilet water red. That disease is just eating him up."

I couldn't believe my ears. I couldn't believe Aunt Eudora was saying something so private and so horrible in public. I looked around to see if anybody had heard. No one was looking at us, but maybe that's because they was shocked too. I couldn't figure out how anybody could bleed from that place.

I looked at Mama to check for disbelief, hoping she would tell Eudora to shut up, but no. Mama says, like she's unaffected, "So, what in the hell is he doing umpiring today?"

"He insists he ain't sick. He keeps saying he's getting better and that the only thing that makes him feel bad is me fussing over him."

Under my breath I whispered, "Jesus Christ."

But I was too loud, or else Mama's ears could hear ants crawl, because she said, "Young man, if I hear you say that again I'm going to pop you right in the mouth."

I couldn't believe how thoroughly my favorite day of the year was turning to shit. I dropped my head between my knees. I wiped sweat out of my eyes. When was this game ever going to start, I wondered. But I got my answer right then 'cause Mr. Hollis who owns Hollis Car Repair said very importantly over the loudspeaker, "Everyone please stand for the National Anthem."

So we all stood up and Mama completely embarrassed me by holding onto my shoulder like I was the only thing keeping her on her feet. But Eudora was worse, because, while Mama kind of hummed along with the record, Eudora sang real loud. She especially cat-screeched the "rockets' red glare" part. And I swear the people in front of us were laughing.

When it was over, Mama said, "Eudora, you've got quite a voice," and she nudged me and said, "Go get me another glass of water, Emory. Here's a dollar. And get yourself a cold drink. Eudora, you want a Coke?"

"A large," said Eudora.

I took the money and started to bolt down the wooden bleachers. Mama's voice trailed behind me: "And a bag of boiled peanuts. And don't run."

But I ran anyway. My minor act of freedom during an absolutely rotten day. I was breathing hard when I reached the Coke stand, but not so hard I didn't recognize who was standing in front of me. George Lewis. Mr. Lewis's son. Played in last year's game. "Hey, George, how's it going?"

He turned around. He was taller than me, and I was put off to see a thin scraggle of hair above his lip. "Hi, Emory."

"I thought you'd be playing in the game today. What happened?" I asked. Casual.

"My fucking old man said no way. Said not with them fielding an all-star team."

"Tough break."

"Yeah."

He turned away from me and ordered two hot dogs and three Cokes. I looked out at the field. Tiama's mayor and the three wardens were tossing out game balls.

I heard Junior shout, "Play ball."

George Lewis walked off without saying good-bye, and for some reason that made my day a little better. I gave Old Man Harris my order. As I reached up for the cardboard carrier he had put everything into, I said, "Hot damn. We're finally going to have a ball game." Mr. Harris grinned. He had only two bottom teeth, as far as I could tell. "Here you go, young man. And don't let your mother hear you talk like that."

I grabbed the carrier and walked off. But before I got too far away, I noticed a Coke cup laying upside down. Perfect. I poised my foot above it and slammed down. Bull's-eye. The cup popped like a cap gun. Glares and sneers. Good.

The prisoners were up first. I hurried back up the bleachers as fast as I could go, but making sure I didn't spill our cold drinks.

I sat down next to Mam

What People are saying about this

Lee Smith
Reading Sugar Cage is like falling under a powerful spell. Echoes of Zora Neale Hurston can be heard in the incantatory prose�.

Meet the Author

Connie May Fowler grew up in Florida and now lives with her
husband in St. Augustine. She received an M.A. in English from the
University of Kansas. In addition to Sugar Cage, Connie May
Fowler is the author of Before Women Had Wings and Remembering Blue.

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