Thursday, March 11, 2010

Aunt Sugar's Crows

“I hate crows. They always take the best and leave the rest.”

Aunt Sugar stands at the kitchen sink washing the breakfast dishes and looking out the window as the mob of crows devastates the persimmon orchard. The back of her neck turns red. Soon she will take the shotgun and begin manufacturing crow fertilizer.

A short woman, broad in the shoulders, those who dare might call her stout. They would be fools. At 60 Aunt Sugar still is a deadly threat to anyone who crosses her. Few seldom do. Most people remember when she threw Heath Jackson under the horses, and for those with a memory deficit she is always ready to repeat the tale. I love hearing it.

“Back in those days, in high school, Heath and the fancy ones only knew me as one of those girls, the ones who didn’t look good enough or dress good enough to get asked out on Saturday nights. Sometimes, I wondered why the good Lord gave all looks and money to folks like the Jacksons – silly people who never seemed to appreciate it.” She would straighten her head and fix her eyes on mine. “But I never sat around feeling sorry for myself. No sirree Bob. I always went out on Saturdays anyhow. Me, Sally Jenkins, and Betty Robinson would go on out and have a good time, even if it was just us.”

A master of dramatic pauses, she would smooth her dress, brush back her hair, wipe the table or take some other small distracting action before continuing. “Well this one night we was at a football game. Heath Jackson scored three times. He was a beautiful boy, Heath was – blond hair, smooth skin and eyes that sparkled like diamonds. Maybe I loved him a little. Maybe I did.” On cue, moisture would glisten at the corner of her eye. She would refuse to brush it away, daring it to roll down her cheek. It never did.

“Anyhow, after the game we hung around the exit to catch sight of Heath. I guess he was anxious to leave. I heard him say, ‘Hey Stumpy, why don’t you and the cow girls get out of the way?’”

Her lips would become a thin line. “Then he pushed me and I looked up into his laughing face. Things went white. People say I grabbed him by his shirt and slung him like a sack of flour towards the wagon by the gate. They was gonna be a hayride or somethin’ that night I guess.”

She would reach for my hand and hold it as she neared the climax. “I never meant it to be that way Danny. I didn’t aim for him to land under the horses. I didn’t aim for the horses to spook and run over him. Never in a million years did I mean for it to turn out that away.”

Heath never scored another touchdown. Doctors repaired his broken legs but could not restore his speed and he finally quit the team. The sheriff visited with Aunt Sugar the next day but nothing ever came of it. As for Heath and his family they either were too humiliated or too amazed to accept that tiny Aunt Sugar could bring down a hero like Heath. What judge would possibly believe such a tale? Even those who saw it could not accept that Aunt Sugar had played David to Heath’s Goliath. The paper listed it as a tragic accident. Heath had tripped.

I knew better. I had felt Aunt Sugar’s hands on me more than once as a child. I was grown now, a man visiting my favorite Aunt, but I knew better than to challenge her. When you are Aunt Sugar’s it is best to play by her rules. Outside the window, the crows must have forgotten this truth or perhaps they were ignorant or willfully defiant. No matter. Soon they would pay the ultimate price. Watching them continue to destroy the orchard, Aunt Sugar shook her head, almost dislodging her huge bun of hair.

“Yes damn them. They always take the best part. And that fool Jay just lets it happen.”

Her back is to me as she stands at the sink. Her summer cotton dress reaches to her calves, where solid ankles rise from heavy shoes with square heels: sensible dress for a strong woman; a woman who held her head high as friend after friend left her. Heath’s popularity and the town’s anger over his loss to the football team stripped Aunt Sugar of her friends. Even teachers were wary of her. Her final year of high school was spent in defiant silence.

Scarlet fever took Aunt Sugar’s parents the year after graduation. She kept up the house by working at the Rexall and mending clothes. Her name was Clarissa McKinsey then. There was little sweet or sugar like in her life. She retreated into a routine of work and church until a willowy, shy man named Jay penetrated her shell. Jay Tucker, my Uncle, watched Clarissa McKinsey for years before he dared approach. Like her, he was no friend of the Jackson’s. Like her, he worked hard for what he had. Like her, he had spent endless Saturday nights alone. He lived at the edge of town on a few stony acres whose best feature was a hillside of fruit trees, persimmon trees mostly.

He watched Clarissa carefully, admiring how she marched through the pain of her high school days and her parent’s death. He watched her go to church every Sunday. He thought of asking her to join the group that went to Leon’s for catfish after the sermon but she always disappeared before he could catch her. He asked Pastor Jamieson about it.

The Pastor looked at Jay over the top of his reading glasses. “Now you need to keep this to yourself understand?”

Jay nodded.

“You know old man Hensley and how he has cheated almost everyone in town?”


“Well he even tried to steal Clarissa’s house from the bank, when she fell behind in her payments. But then he lost his wife last May. And strangest thing, Clarissa came to me and said how she felt like she would start bringin’ him a plate of food every Sunday. Said she didn’t want nobody else to know.”

The Pastor adjusted his glasses. “Like I said, it’s passing strange, but maybe she’s drawn to his meanness. Plenty of folks have called her mean over the years. It don’t matter. I only know Clarissa is doing what no one else will – carrying Christian kindness to someone who most folk hate.”

“Hmm…” was all Jay said, but he watched Clarissa even more closely.

Finally, as if he were a male preying mantis approaching a voracious female, Jay began leaving anonymous notes and gifts on Clarissa’s front steps. This went on for several months: Jay never daring to reveal himself and Clarissa refusing to acknowledge the gifts. Curiosity finally woke Clarissa one dawn and she opened the door as Jay was placing a box of candy on the steps.

Jay jumped as though bitten. “I’m Jay, Jay Tucker, miss.”

Clarissa laughed. “I’m hardly a Miss. You know I’m nearly 30.”

“Being ‘Miss’ ain’t about age I reckon.”

“Is that a fact? Well what is it about?”

Jay cleared his throat and stared up at the roof as if studying it for some sign of disrepair. “Well as I see it, someone is a Miss until they’s married.”

“You don’t say.”

“Yes miss. I do say. And…”

For the first time in nearly a decade, a smile flirted with the corners of Clarissa’s mouth. “And what?"

Uncle Jay did a bit more throat clearing and continued avoiding Clarissa’s eyes. “Well miss. I was wondering if you had ever thought of changing that.”

“Changing what?”

“Changing from being a miss.” Jay’s eyes stopped wandering and found Clarissa’s.

Clarissa stood open mouthed. The air was heavy and difficult to inhale.

Jay smiled. He picked up the box of candy and placed it in Clarissa’s hand.

“Is it alright if I call you Sugar?”

Clarissa heard someone say, “I…I guess so.”

“I’ll be going then. I’ll come by on Saturday and we can go to a movie or somethin’.”

Clarissa remained motionless except for a brief nod.

Jay bowed deeply, turned and skipped down the steps. Whistling he walked away. Clarissa, soon to be my Aunt Sugar, watched as the scarecrow of a man disappeared down the street. Her smile returned. She opened the box of chocolate, ate one and then ate one more. She left the rest. She closed the box and put it into the dowry chest her mother had left her. It was still there when, two months later she and Jay got married. It was a small wedding, just the two of them with the Pastor and his wife. They moved to Jay’s farm.

They never had children. Uncle Jay wanted them, but Aunt Sugar was afraid. Why bring children like her into the world? Why add to the world’s suffering? No, far better to keep things simple. Uncle Jay adjusted. From what I can tell they were happy enough. Their farm always was well kept, even if the poor soil kept it from being among the most productive. Aunt Sugar’s quilts were on walls as far away as New York and their persimmon jam always took first prize at the county fair. Last year a national chain offered to buy the recipe. Uncle Jay often tells me that even without children, their life has been full on this farm; the farm with the persimmon orchard; the persimmon orchard that is full of crows.

The crow’s time has come. Turning to grin at me, Aunt Sugar grabs the shotgun and we head out to the orchard. The mob erupts noisily and flees, but not before Aunt Sugar brings down a dozen or more, her shots ringing out in the clear morning air. Crows flap about on the ground before lying still – midnight corpses among the leaves. I see Uncle Jay at the edge of the orchard. He is like that. Quietly sneaking up on you when you least expect it. Aunt Sugar goes back in to start on lunch. Uncle Jay and I pick up the corpses. Have the best been taken? Are these all that are left? I do not know.

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