“Sugar” by Penny Z. Campbell

Penny Z. Campbell


When my son went to prison,
I ate sugar. His wife wanted no one
outside the family to know;
she used the word private
three times and I can assure you
I eat my sugar privately. 
Before sunrise, I get up, rain sugar 
over my bowl of berries
which don’t even need it
while my husband is still asleep.
Later, while he plays piano downstairs,
I pour hot water over
apricot-flavored tea leaves,
and when they have steeped, transfer it
to a stoneware mug.
Then I take the jar of apricot jam 
from the refrigerator and dip out
a wide, glistening spoonful 
while the winter-hard honey liquifies 
in the microwave. All that sweetness,
I stir it hard, beat it until
it becomes one with the tea,
wrap my cold fingers around
the tall mug and drink down
the sugar, the sugar, the sugar
while no one is watching—
discreetly, confidentially, my elixir 
of forgetfulness, while my son 
gets his coffee from the mess hall.
I never called him Sugar. Cutie pie when 
he was little and now, when we wave goodbye
in the visitor room, after the guests have risen 
and the men are allowed to file out
and he shouts, Bye, Mom! I call back,
Bye, Honey! It’s the least I can do, leave him with
a public declaration of affection, since hugs
are not allowed, not now. We pull our masks down
and when the guards don’t complain—they are not,
after all, wearing masks themselves—we keep them off,
down around our necks, so we can see each other’s 
faces, so I can see his smile, his sweet smile.
I called his father Sweetheart, something 
that amazes me now. That man’s mouth 
smelled of Winstons 
and the only whiskey I ever tasted 
was on his lips. He was the one 
who socked me, threw me, came at me 
with the gun—and he was the only one 
I granted that endearment. 
He was not a monster, he was my high school 
sweetheart—see? It rolls off the tongue. 
Back then he smelled like bubblegum. 
And although I finally left him, he left me 
with this boy, this towheaded sweet pea.
Once, after the divorce, I let his father
take him for a week, and when I said goodbye
as he lay half in his crib, half clinging to me,
I said, I’ll be back, I promise! but he cried inconsolably, 
I want more Mommy! I want more Mommy!
The sugar in the sugar bowl keeps running low. 
The bowl itself is somewhat valuable, not genuine
Russel Wright but a real reproduction, a copy 
itself no longer made. It is beautiful, it shines, 
my favorite chartreuse, and I refill it 
over and over these days. These years,
these seventy months, ten months off
for good behavior, which of course he will get, 
so when we talk about it we say five years.
He minds his manners even when the guards 
do not. He minds his manners even though 
the guards never do. He manages to tell me this
without quite spelling it out. What he does is,
he sweetens it up. We do that for each other. 
We are cunning, we are kind; we do not
belong in a place like this. 
For years, I made chai every day
after work, back in those days when I worked.
Water and spiced Darjeeling leaves, then too much
cream, a long pour of sugar. Heated 
to blistering, how many times would I get up,
abashed, to sneak another teaspoon of sugar
from the bowl, furtively, as though someone 
were watching, keeping count? No one cared
but my doctor, and why did I even tell him? 
Three teaspoons make one tablespoon 
and if you use a spoon from the flatware tray,
you don’t even know what you’re doing. 
It’s not as if the FBI is keeping count. 
They only do that if you
accidentally / inadvertently / wholly innocently
download child pornography and they see it,
somehow, even though you don’t, and it
hangs there, heavy, ripe fruit in the ether, 
and they give you one two three four
five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve
thirteen fourteen fifteen sixteen seventeen 
eighteen nineteen twenty twenty-one twenty-
two twenty-three twenty-four hours to pick up
the phone and report it. After that it’s too late, 
even when you tell them you were at work, and
you were picking up your kids at daycare, and
you were making them dinner, and
you were talking to your wife, and
you were reading bedtime stories, and
you were completely unaware of the evil
on your computer, the one you shut twenty-
five hours before. Who on earth knows you
ought to call the FBI? Even when you tell them
you were horrified / terrified / sickened and
disgusted by what you found there. Even when
your fierce wife stands up and tells them
what a good fine upstanding man / husband /
father you are. Even then. You’re it.
We could buy all sorts of candy 
if the vending machines were not shut down,
not barred with actual padlocks as if
they were the gates to freedom.  
What harm could candy do? But this place
is behind the curve, outside the science
which says the virus is in the air, not
the candy. We could sit there feeding the coin slot
quarters, commanding Snickers to fall,
inducing showers of M&M’s, and eat them
together, apart. I could spend ten dollars,
the outdated manual says, on sweets. 
And we could hug hello and goodbye, 
smell the sugar on each other’s breath.
Glucose / fructose / galactose,
receipt / possession / distribution.
This is how a plea deal works: 
you may plead to less than three, 
but you cannot plead to none. 
I remember when my father 
would tire of the syrup on his Sunday pancakes 
and resort to sugar, icing them 
into granulated circles, and
how it made a crunch, biting down. 
He taught me to sugar my tomatoes
when we tired of salt and pepper, so many 
tomatoes from the garden, we needed a change.
Beet sugar, cane sugar,
sugar in the morning sugar in the evening
sugar at supper time. We had a candy drawer 
next to the stove, always full of lemon drops
and chocolate stars, and the cookie jar 
kept full by my mother.
I pretend to take it by the teaspoon,
but the crystals on the tablespoon
say otherwise. My friend with the Tarot cards
asks me, What is your favorite
crystal? and I answer, Sugar,
making sure to laugh like it’s a joke.  
I pour, I sift, I sprinkle, I shovel 
heavy drifts. When the sugar bowl 
is empty I fill it from the canister
and when the canister is empty 
there is always a new bag 
on the shelf. I try to forgo it
at the grocery store, try not to have it
in the house but there’s always a need
in recipes, innocent things like cornbread,
dressing, a sheet cake for church. When I bake
I don’t eat even one piece; I scrape off 
the bowl / the beaters / the spoon
and take it straight. Sugar and butter,
but never butter without sugar. 
Someone warns me it’s dangerous,
the raw flour, the raw eggs, and I say,
That’s interesting. 
Time stretches like warm taffy between
his calls, his letters, our long-distance visits.
Now I have tea twice a day, one laced with
jam and honey, the other Earl Grey with cream
and sugar, sugar, sugar. I tell my husband
this is my Zen moment. My cave, my cell.
Oh, sugar. Oh, I love you. Oh, thank you 
for leavening the bitter taste in the world
these days, these sixty or seventy months. 
Thank you, sweetie / honey /sugar
my love, my love, my love.

from Rattle #80, Summer 2023


Penny Z. Campbell: “I write poetry not to find out what I think—I start with words lighting on my head—but to take things further. I write to document, to archive, to speak unmuffled about both joy and pain. I love to play with words, line breaks, near rhymes, even formal restraints (sometimes). When something hard happens, when what I think is what I feel and it hurts, I find solace in poetry even as it unburies more pain. Sometimes it helps. It’s all right if it doesn’t. ‘Penny Campbell’ is a pseudonym.”

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