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Fiction Issue 2014 honorable mention: "Sugar Pop"

"For one terrible moment, she saw the thing that lived in his eyes when he thought no one but Allison was looking."

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When the alarm buzzed Rosa awake, she knew she wasn't going to give the old man extra sugars that day. Every Saturday, he asked for ten packets. She had begun calling him Sugar Pop. Nobody in their right mind would dump ten packets day after day into one small Styrofoam cup of coffee.

The bakery owner, Allison, bought decent coffee, too, something you could look forward to in the morning. Rosa drank the coffee with plenty of half-and-half, the way her mother prepared it. She decided she would give him just three packets. That was all anyone needed. Sugar Pop was going to have to learn to like it.

After school and on Saturday mornings, Rosa was a counter girl at Dream Fluff Bakery. Allison said that she was the best counter girl ever, after only three months. Rosa was a smiler, always polite, but she didn't let anyone push her around and that was the most important part, Allison said. During Rosa's training week, Allison told her it was important to be nice to the customers, but firm, especially early in the mornings when people are coming off night shifts.

"The customers are a little crabby," Allison told her. "You know, still thinking, 'I haven't slept a wink.' The watchmen are OK, but the ambulance drivers you got to watch out for. Who knows what they've been doing in the middle of the night."

Allison was thin, maybe 30 or a little older. She ran all day between the kitchen and the built-in tables where people ate their long johns or crullers and drank their coffee. Allison covered her hair so that you couldn't see a wisp. Some days, she used cotton bandannas. Other days, she had a silk scarf or a tiger print. When Allison wore her sunglasses indoors, she looked like a telenovela character who had been unlucky in love or cursed with some tragic accident like palsy or maybe headaches, like Rosa's own mother.

Allison rarely sat down and ate, unlike Rosa, who in a sitting could put down two or three cuts of hot apple coffee ring and wash it down with three cold strawberry milks. Allison would pinch off dough here, maybe a ball of streusel there, and pop it like a pill into her mouth.

"I've been in this business since I was a kid. My father owned an independent until the day he died," Allison told Rosa after she hired her. Allison said her father had big hands, twice the size of her own, but could decorate the most difficult cake in less than an hour if, of course, the frosting was prepared and the decorations were laid out in the order they were to be set. If they weren't, there was hell to pay.

Allison told Rosa she'd have to say no to the customers when it felt right. "Don't hesitate to use your noggin," she said at the end of training. Allison liked that Rosa wanted to study business after she graduated from high school. She had ambition, Allison said, not like the other counter girls she'd hired, who wasted what they earned on nail polish and clothes. "I trust you, you're going to be my best worker."

And Rosa was.

On her first Saturday, when Sugar Pop ordered a bear claw, a coffee, and ten packets of sugar, Rosa said, "Coming up!" Allison's boyfriend, Bump, who ran the ovens, was just bringing the bear claws out. They were hot and soft, their heaped middles letting out puffs of steam as they gently collapsed on themselves.

"These claws," Bump said, "they'll go like wildfire."

Rosa counted out the sugars and watched as Sugar Pop put them in a ragged pocket. He had a face like a washrag hung up to dry.

"That'll be two dollars and ten cents," Rosa said.

Sugar Pop counted out the dollars in change and made up the ten cents in pennies.

"Have a nice day!" Rosa said as she dropped the coins into the tray. Sugar Pop was already out the door.

"A regular," Bump said to her, smiling. "Every morning, like clockwork. Allison has a soft spot. She'd feed the bums for free if I let her."

Bump was just the kind of person customers would look at and think, "I wonder what he is doing in this old place?" When Allison introduced them, Bump extended a floury hand. "Little Spanish Rose," he grinned, "where are your thorns?"

He had hair the color of raisins and a clean, hard jaw. Allison joked that he looked like a movie star and it wasn't an exaggeration. He was slim but solid, so that you knew he was coming when he was on his way and that he had gone by the change in the air after he'd left, how the pressure of him suddenly leaked away. Once, when he lifted a tray, Rosa saw the way his belly funneled between his hips and the frothing of hairs above the drawstring of his baker's pants. It looked nothing like the boys in her high school. She turned bright red as Bump pushed backward through the kitchen door for more pastries.

Winter brought what Bump called claw weather. The wind blew hard against the tall office buildings. People in padded overcoats walked hunched against it. That Saturday, snow off the lake was on everyone's mind. Bump could make bear claws 24 hours a day and still there would be someone left without. All a customer would see were silver trays with wax paper still sticky with melted caramel. Sometimes, Bump would take his break at one of the tables, chatting up the customers as he sipped his coffee, black and splashed with the whiskey he kept next to the mixer.

After her first Saturday, Rosa didn't think about Sugar Pop again until the next time she was in early. He was waiting on the street when she walked up from the bus stop. She unlocked the door and he followed her in as she flicked on the lights.

"Good morning!" Rosa said. "Cold enough for you?"

He didn't look at her like the other customers did. His eyes slid off to one side, as if he were interested in the coffee straws or maybe the red-and-white linoleum.

Before even taking off her coat, Rosa reached for a waxed paper square to grab a claw. Allison taught her to get a paper bag with the other hand at the same time and snap it open. Rosa liked the crisp sound.

Sugar Pop grasped at the packets of sugar.

"That'll be two dollars and ten cents," Rosa said. Again, Sugar Pop counted out two dollars in change and the rest in pennies.

Rosa tried conversation. "These sure are a welcome sight," she said, jangling the pennies. But Sugar Pop didn't reply. Every Saturday since, it had been the same story.

But not this Saturday. By the time Rosa was ready to have her mother braid her hair, it was 4:45 AM. She had to catch the 5:05 train to be downtown by six, when the bakery opened. Her uniform was a white blouse with red piping along the collar and sleeves, a red apron, and a white circle skirt. Above her left breast, "Rosa" curved in red thread over the Dream Fluff emblem, a fat baker lifting a tray of red and blue doughnuts.

"Mama, hurry!" Rosa said. "I'll hardly have time to make fresh coffee."

The brush struck the back of Rosa's hand. "Hush." Her mother began at the crown, pulling down. Then she drew the brush back, fanning Rosa's purple-black hair out. Rosa's eyes closed and her neck arched in pleasure. "It's me who'll suffer if you wake your father. There'll be no peace for me the rest of the day."

Rosa wasn't listening. She was already thinking about one of Bump's hot claws and cold strawberry milk.

On her way to the bus stop, Rosa untied her mother's red ribbon and replaced it with a scarf she had bought the day before. The scarf was covered with red roses, all with thorns. Though the red was different from the red of her uniform, the shade was deep and rich against her hair. Today, she'd put one over on Bump along with old Sugar Pop.

"Bump," she'd say when he came up front for his coffee break, "no more pulling my braid!" Then she'd flip the scarf with the red, red roses and give him an eyeful.

As for Sugar Pop, she'd shake an empty sugar basket under his nose. "Oh, the sugar packet truck is late," she'd say, or that there's some crisis in sugar. That's wasn't entirely a lie. Sugar cost Allison money, and Allison and Bump depended on the bakery and Allison and Bump were her friends. Allison often complained about how customers stole coffee refills and weaseled extra pastries because theirs weren't cooked to satisfaction or had a hair. Too much sugar was bad for a person, even a bum like Sugar Pop.

When Rosa got off the bus, the bank clock at the corner read 5:37. She had never been this early before. It didn't matter. Allison and Bump were always baking by 3 AM. On Saturdays, Rosa didn't see either one until Bump shouldered out the first tray.

Inside, she heard their low voices under the growling of the oven fan. Since she was early, Sugar Pop hadn't been at the door. The scent of the cinnamon rolls Allison made every Saturday wafted from the kitchen. Rosa's mouth began to water. She stuffed her mittens and hat into her pocket and hung her coat by the door, where the customers could leave their things. After stowing her purse beneath the register, she started a fresh pot of coffee. Then she hid the sugars so that Sugar Pop would find only an empty basket. The case was still empty, since Bump liked to bring the claws out first, just as the early birds were wandering in.

Outside, a janitor whose pant cuffs were dark with mop water hurried past. The guard from the jewelry store across the street stood in the door rubbing his eyes. With a rag, Rosa wiped down the seats and gave a swipe to each of the tables, even though they were clean.

Then she heard a slap. A metal bowl rang to the floor.

"Bump," she heard Allison say. "Stay where you are."

The bright bakery lights threw shadows onto the sidewalk. Rosa waited for the next sound and it came, just like her bus.

"No?" Bump said.

There were creams and coffee sticks to restock. But Rosa didn't move.

"Please," said Allison. "Bump. Please."

"I've had about all I can take."

"Baby."

"Don't baby me."

"But I didn't mean . . ."

"Lesson," said Bump. "I'm going to teach you." A garbage truck growled past, but Rosa could still hear the sound of something hard and quick from the kitchen.

Rosa ran to the kitchen door and shoved her way through. Bump stood at the marble candy table. Allison lay on her back across it, with Bump leaning over her. Rosa could see the white cloth of his baker's jacket stretching tight over his moving arms.

"Bump!" Rosa shrieked. He didn't seem to hear. His fists connected with Allison's face, then opened to circle her neck. He lifted her by the shoulders, then propelled her down to the marble with a sound like eggshells cracking. Allison's scarf slipped off, and Rosa saw that her hair was butter yellow.

"Lesson," Bump was saying, "lesson, lesson, lesson."

Rosa grabbed for Bump's jacket, then clawed her way to his shoulders, as hard as the marble table. She pulled and yelled. She shoved her knee into his hip. Her father hit her mother and this is what Rosa knew: she was going to get it sooner or later so she had to stop what was happening now to give her father the chance to realize that he was beating her mother blue. He had to stop sometime; she wanted him to make now seem like just the time he wanted. Her father would look at Rosa's face or his fist or her mother's face, just beginning to swell, or at her mother tossed like a dirty shirt against the wall or at her eyes, rolled back and pink as strawberry milk. Then his mouth would open and he would stagger back, as if watching someone else's car slam against a railing.

Bump squeezed trenches into Allison's neck. Then his arm swept to the side, knocking Rosa to the floor.

"Umb," Allison said.

Rosa kicked Bump in the shin. A ball of spit hung at the corner of his mouth as he turned to her. For one terrible moment, she saw the thing that lived in his eyes when he thought no one but Allison was looking. Then his lips started moving. "You have customers," he said, his voice as balled up as his fist. "Customers, Rosa."

Rosa looked out to the counter, visible through the door, which had stuck open. Sugar Pop stood there, eyes watering from the wind or the cold or the bright kitchen lights. Then he stepped back, away from the steel racks and huge canisters of cinnamon and pecans and the silver dough hooks hanging on the wall.

Instead of ten sugars, Rosa tried to give him 15. But Sugar Pop wouldn't take extras. Rosa tried to slip the extra packets into his pocket, but the material tore. Threads, soft as eyelashes, clung to her fingers as the packets scattered on the floor. The coins he had for her clattered to the counter as he hurried away.

A line of customers had formed for pastries. Bump started loading the glass cases. "Hot twists," he shouted out, then, "Snails coming up! Look at those claws. What a day for it!"

Rosa gave him the meanest look she had, the one she gave her father, but he shrugged it off.

People don't want trouble served with their morning pastry and coffee. Rosa focused on the cash register, the paper bags, and the little extras, like remembering what the regulars wanted. Customers came and went and she served them, wiping down the tables when she had a moment and collecting the used coffee cups, the soiled napkins, the newspapers people read and left folded on the chairs.

Later, Allison appeared, her dark glasses on and the scarf rewrapped. She said hello to some regulars and smiled at Bump when he emerged from the kitchen to take his break, sitting like always at a table with his special coffee steaming from a cup.

Rosa never saw it happen again. Sugar Pop came in every Saturday, and showed no sign of having seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. When friends of theirs stopped by, Bump and Allison talked of getting married, finally, and buying a second Dream Fluff, this time farther north, in a more residential neighborhood. "The downtown is getting dangerous," Allison told Rosa. "You never know what kind of creep's going to walk in."

A strange thing happened to Rosa, and she thought about it often, on the bus or just walking, thinking about anything at all, even after she left the bakery and graduated and started working in a dentist's office, a much better job, really, and nearer to the community college where she was taking classes. This was it. When she came to work after that day, no matter how hard it was snowing or what had happened at home, she would hesitate at the door and hold her breath. Until she saw Allison making the frosting or Bump holding a steaming tray high above his head, or the dentist greeting her or the first patients arriving, she would wonder: Who would be the first to give themselves away? Who would cry out?

Sometimes, she imagined a slap or the crack of a bowl against the floor or the clatter of the pennies on the counter as Sugar Pop fled back into the street.

But it was always nothing.

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