‘Sugar Dinner’ by Jon Berger

I was driving to Gaylord. My mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, early-onsets, for about a year and wasn’t able to drive herself there, even though she thought she could. She wanted to visit an old friend from school, who she hadn’t seen in a few years. Her friend’s name was Jacqueline, she lived on a farm and I think she was a hippie. I only met her a few times when I was little. Leaving Saginaw and trying to navigate the change of the rolling green hills up north was like going from a beehive to the top of a big tree. We got into some arguments, Mom was starting to get mean, which the doctor said might happen. She sat in the passenger seat of the shitty minivan with her hands limp and cradled in her lap, looking out the window becoming harder to talk to.

We got to the farm and it was beautiful. Jacqueline’s driveway was a long two-track road with trees lining both sides. She was wearing this tie-dye robe thing and had short cropped hair. She was nice and gave me and my mom a big hug and kiss. We went inside. She sold fresh farm eggs right out of her farm house. The eggs were stacked in cartons on the counter and were brown. A few women were sitting inside drinking coffee. We got introduced and my mom sat down with them at the long wooden kitchen table and I sat off to the side in a rocking chair, petting a rescue dog that was Pitbull-German Shepherd mix.  My mom wasn’t able to be a part of the conversation, she was unsure of every word she spoke. The women knew, and they did a lot to include her. They were going out to eat and shop and be tourist. They invited me but I told them I would head downtown and check out the music festival. I felt a comet burning up in my chest.

The music festival had a car show. They were classic cars. I didn’t understand the music. I think it was polka trying to cover classic rock? I ended up drinking a Busch Light tallboy and smoked cigarettes in an alleyway by where I parked the van. I was standing next to where this restaurant tossed their trash in dumpsters and the employees took breaks. A blue sign above the door read: “The Sugar Cube.” I was hungry so I walked in through the back entrance in the alley, catching the door behind an employee going into work. I went down a dark hallway that smelled of newly installed hardwood. I came out to a confusing layout of tables. The place was packed and didn’t have any televisions. I saw an empty spot up at the bar and sat there. The workers were wearing white dress shirts with black ties. I looked over at the other people sitting at the bar. They were drinking wine that looked like human blood and dressed like old school vampires. I was wearing a baggy T-shirt, blue jeans and Nikes.

The workers were either ignoring me or glaring at me or both as I tried to get someone’s attention so I could get a beer. I twisted around on my barstool and saw a sign that read: PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED. A line of people stood behind the sign staring at me with deer-in-the-headlight eyes and gaping fish mouths.

This stocky cook with tattoos shoved through the swinging kitchen doors, where I got a glimpse of staff running around like crazy with steam and pans banging. He was coming right for me. “Can I help you?” He said placing his hands on the bar, squaring himself up, giving me a look like we were about to wrestle each other in the WWE. I had thought about leaving, and I was waiting for a manager to ask me to leave. But I knew what this was. I wasn’t leaving now. I was going to stay and eat.

“Uh yeah, can I get that IPA?” I pointed.

“Sure,” he said and flipped around and started pouring me a pint from the tap. He gave me my drink then walked back into the kitchen. He didn’t wait on anybody else and didn’t ask if I wanted a menu.

I drank my beer and listened to this one guy, who said every few minutes that he was a lawyer, talk loudly about how he planned to spend 50,000 dollars to knock down a wall by his house because it annoyed him. I thought about how funny it’d be to see him come to my neighborhood and get the shit mugged out of him.

I finished my beer and sat there waiting for someone to refill it. The same cook finally came back out. This time he was trying to be meaner.

“You ready to pay for that?” He pointed down at my empty glass.

“No, I’ll have another and a menu,” I said putting my chin up, rubbing my hands together and giving him a dead stare.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said in a deep voice, leaning in across the bar.

“I do,” I lowered my head and leaned in close to his face, clenched my neck and tensed up my shoulders, giving him a look that said I had the capacity to lunge across the bar and rip his fucking jawbone off.

“Alright, man. It’s cool.” He stood back, grabbed a menu from underneath the bar and slid it to me. He refilled my beer while I looked at the menu. There weren’t any prices listed next to the food. I wasn’t sure what some of the food was. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich cause it was probably cheap. When the cook gave me my beer and took my order he did it like he knew me. Like he was glad I didn’t budge. He turned and went back to the kitchen. An older lady who was done-up in a black sparkling dress was waiting for him by the kitchen entrance. They talked and she seemed pissed, he just shrugged and went back into the kitchen. She huffed and walked away.

Some kid brought me out the sandwich. It was good and came with fries and a pickle. I ate everything slowly and sipped my beer. I caught people looking at me, so I’d stare at them and they’d glance away. I texted my mom to see how she was, but I didn’t get anything back. She was getting worse at texting and rarely responded anymore. If she did, it was always jumbled and spelled wrong. I didn’t have Jacqueline’s number. I sat at the bar hoping she was having a good time and that everyone was being nice to her.

I finished everything on my plate and the bartender asked me if I wanted another beer but I asked her for the check. She had big eyes, flowing hair with a silk voice, walking something like a swan.

She came back and handed me the little black booklet thing with the bill inside and said, “You’re all set. Have a good night, hon.” She smiled big and tapped her shiny nails on the bar as she strode away and went back into a flurry of pouring expensive drinks, making it all look like art.

I flipped it open and my bill was 2 dollars. It just read: Open Food. I dug into my wallet and put 6 dollars in the booklet and closed it. The place was too packed for me to try and go back out to the alley, so I walked through the deer-eyed fish-mouth people waiting to be seated. I walked right through them and I didn’t walk like any of them. Outside, I walked down the wide sidewalk and thought about how someday my mom will go into a nursing home and how the world will end. The sun will blow everything up. Nothing will remember anything, but the universe will know that a person was kind to me.

Jon Berger lives in Saginaw, Michigan. He was Anti-Heroin Chic’s featured poet for the month of October. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Five 2 One Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Occulum, The New Engagement, and elsewhere. He tweets @bergerbomb44

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