Short Story Winner 2020:
Cupcakes and Carburetors by Caroline Sutherland
I’m struggling to find the likeness of him, the set of his jaw. I have his soul-searching, clothes-stripping eyes just right - the twist of his mouth when he’s thinking his deep thoughts. The curl of hair he flicks, without knowing.
I set aside my paper and pencil and sip Ma’s lemonade. It’s prohibition style, lemon pips and sugar granules sour enough to pucker my lips to a cat’s ass kiss. There’s activity in the house that’s seeping out to the front porch, a friction of skin on skin generating a surplus of need. I rock the swing-chair back and forth until it whines. There’s a yelp of Jim Barr’s dog down at the creek, then nothing - a hole in the air. The only thing breathing between the creek and here are the crickets waiting for the heat to ease.
The fly door opens and slaps shut. Sheriff Bob replaces his hat, shading his tight, knowing eyes.
‘Cassie,’ he nods.
The lid of his right eye twitches.
‘You still seeing Pete Fletch?’
‘Any idea where he be today?’
‘Nope.’ The only thing I care about is Pete not being found.
His eyes narrow, ‘you what age now, Cassie?’
The fly door slaps again and Ma, a Winston creasing the edge of her mouth, slumps into the broken wicker chair opposite. They don’t acknowledge each other. Ever. He crosses the yard, fumbles his belt buckle, checks his hat and heads up the new freeway towards Granville, to his wife and boys.
‘You know where Pete be?’ Ma pushes a thin line of smoke out her nose. Past the wart that cruelly disfigures her elegant face. The one she says magically arrived the day she told her first lie.
‘Course you do,’ she grins.
Ma is thin from thinking too much. You see it in her restless eyes. Things grow on her skin if she sits still too long, like worry blemishes. Her arms are long and so are her legs which makes her seem tall. She isn’t when you stand in beside her. When she moves it’s with determination and you see her hands slowing her, balancing the possibilities of it turning out well, hopelessly. It’s like she has the knowledge of age before her time.
I tuck my feet under me, hiding their nakedness as I watch the patrol car ease over the brow of the road.
‘People are always leaving,’ Ma says, a trace of sad irritation creasing her brows. She closes her eyes against the drifting dust. Ma gets vexed when hot and finds it easier to rile folk up than think of conversation. She pinches the Winston from her mouth and retreats inside.
I blame Fart Mannion and his insomniac dogs. If they’d slept on a while and Pete’d walked out of Fart’s tooling shed with the carburetor nobody wanted, no-one would’ve been the wiser. My Pete lives life on his own terms. Not sweating about how people get hurt if they are in his way. This time it’s him that’s hurt and it’s making him mean.
Pete’s hiding in the deserted shack just across the creek. Early this morning I walked out there, down the dirt path and pushed against the old door.
He yelled’ ‘piss off,’ and ‘it’s your fault.’ Threw a rock.
I threw the ham sandwich I made for him at the stupid door. Could be the songbirds or wild cats took it. Could be the giant rats that come up from the creek took it but I’m hoping Pete took it for hi’self.
Ma and I pass the afternoon on the porch. I draw her tired hands until she twitches and fetches tomato sandwiches and a jar of homebrew cider from the sod cellar. Dry thunder rolls over Lake Erie until the moths come out and bash their brains against the storm lamps.
I’m not sleeping tonight. The note I left with the ham sandwich says, throw stones at my window after midnight. I made a small pile of stones under my window, easy to find in the dark and then scattered them for worry Ma’d ask questions. I could blame the squirrels, gathering them together, mistaking them for corn ears, but stupid squirrels don’t live in our neighbourhood.
I don’t have a suitcase like they have in films. Where the wronged woman pulls it from the top of a high wardrobe, flinging it open to reveal a space for all her worldly goods no matter how small the case or how many clothes she owns. I haven’t been anywhere but here.
A year ago, just before Spring Break, I was in Miss Fifer’s art room at school.
‘Cassie, your work is exceptional,’ she’d said pushing a pen across her desk. ‘A real opportunity,’ directing her gaze towards the white spaces on the Hamilton Art School scholarship form.
All I could think of was Pete, pressing me against the wall an hour ago, his breath - my neck.
‘I’m not sure.’
‘You could get away from here.’
Sunlight played across her desk, her mug of tea catching the light, becoming a glinting eye. Dark eyelashes in the folds of liquid.
‘It’s your choice but it’s one I wish you would consider,’ a note of hidden desperation catching in her throat.
I dropped her pen, ‘I couldn’t leave my mother, there’d be just her, on her own. If I went away. She really doesn’t like being on her own.’
Ma loves me. As if she has only gathered in the smallest amount of love in her lifetime and gives it out piecemeal so it lasts, between us, as long as possible. That’s how it works when you don’t get enough to start with.
I followed Pete out of school when he decided schooling wasn’t for him; exams were for people who didn’t know what they wanted with their lives. He did. Pete was fixing on setting up a garage, servicing trucks, making quick money, driving fast cars with altered carburetors, winning drag races, buying better carburetors, winning better races. Our dreams smelled of leather polish and motor oil with deep notes of passion and flushed, moist skin.
It didn’t happen immediately, it didn’t happen intentionally, it just happened the way things do and you look back on them and wonder, ‘did I decide to do this?’ I fell behind in homework, didn’t hand in a sketching project, Miss Fifer put me in detention, skipped class, detention, skipped school.
‘It’s her life,’ Ma said when Miss Fifer caught a bus to our place. Ma stood in the doorway refusing to invite her in nor sit in the shade of the porch. Miss Fifer wore a hat against the sun as if she were a European lady visiting a city park. It made no difference; her hair turned to straw, her skin flaked and the whites of her eyes yellowed. The worse she looked the straighter she stood.
Miss Fifer sings in the church choir and she’s friends with Sheriff Bob’s wife, Madeline. Ma don’t sing. She laughed about Miss Fifer over supper, ‘that woman, she’s so bitter some opportunity has passed her by, she’s all eaten up. Like a corn husk after it’s been munched on and tossed. All bitty and dry.’
Somehow that just made me sad.
Ma had persevered, ‘I bet she made a bad choice with some man.’
It’s always about affairs of the heart with Ma. She reads magazines explaining how these things are achieved and now that I’ve left school Ma intensifies her handing out of magazines to me. They find their way into her shopping bag from Salon De Snips on Franklin Street and we companionably sift through their offerings, detective style most afternoons.
Ma’s relentless filling in of time with busy nothing fills my head with a low hum around the edges of my ears, like the lace wings of insects flitting and gitting between tall stems of rustling grass, shaking their heads of seeds that cover the dirt that covers the ground. Until I am buried in the anxious whisperings of fallen things.
Then I take myself to the creek, leaving footprints in the yellow sand until I am escaped and alone. Hidden between two old dogwood trees I settle in my childhood hideout - creating images that are crooked and beautiful. That come alive as if fed by blood drawn through the skin of my hand. Guided by thin threads of sensation memories - stored deep. So deep that when my fingers move, I am in suspended happiness, as if my body is floating, breath becoming heartbeat, heartbeat the only metronome of time.
Often times we bake. Cupcakes; two dozen chocolate, two dozen vanilla, two dozen strawberry for Maisie’s Tea Shop. Brown bread and cinnamon rolls for the Traveller’s Rest. We wrap them, ready for Ma to take into town. Other days I hang out with Susie at the Mall comparing hopes and expectations until the spit in our mouths dries like the last glisten of damp around a waterhole before summer. Pete works in his Pa’s garage. When evening comes, he wipes his oil-stained hands down his overalls as if pushing the pleasure of hard work back into hi’self, so as to savour it twice. His contented happiness offends me and my frustration escapes into the air between us.
‘What’s your hurry?’ he says, his fingertips on my bra clasp, ‘aren’t we happy how things are?’
I am leaning against the side wall of his Pa’s garage.
‘Where’re the fast cars with the altered carburetors?’ I counter, pressing hard against the wall.
His eyes register annoyance, ‘they’re comin’. In a year or two. When I’ve saved up.’
‘And I’ve cooked a thousand more cupcakes.’
‘You like cupcakes.’
‘You like your Pa’s garage.’
We stare at each other because we aren’t sure of what we’d started.
I’m listening for Pete’s tossed pebbles at my window half-awake, half-asleep. Wherever Pete and I are going it’ll be away from here, where the law can’t find him and cupcakes don’t exist.
Next morning Ma takes the bus into town. I walk the road out to the shack, black flies buzzing around me something awful, increasing my fear of something terrible. The shitty rats thinking the sandwich an invitation to something bigger. A signal of sorts to gather and charge the shack finding Pete unable to defend hi’self. I know it ain’t true but it’s an explanation why he didn’t arrive last night and my feet quicken after thinking I might be responsible for the rat-eating of Pete.
Tossed sandwich paper but no gnawed, white bones. I kick my way home finding Sheriff Bob leaning against the hood of his patrol car.
‘Pete Fletch walked into town last night. Patched up in the surgery for a dog bite,’ he says.
The back of his patrol car is empty. No damn Pete looking out the window. Looking for me.
‘I’m not giving you a lift into town, Carrie, no point. Pete’s Da and me decided the best thing for Pete is a fresh start. Fart’s found him a job out of state. No-one’s getting in trouble for trying to steal an old carburetor. Pete’s on the bus out of town right now.’
He lifts his hat to dry the rim of sweat across his brow.
Pete’s on a bus, a seat beside the window so as to watch everything familiar pass. A borrowed suitcase tucked under his seat. I feel his betrayal as a sour stench of pain gripping in my guts – twisting something in my head - that disappears in a moment of clarity. Ma’s waiting, shoulders aching, for the bus home and it’s not lack of love that makes me hurry to be gone before she arrives. It’s the gathering of pencils and thoughts and paper and dreams and the banging on Miss Fifer’s door and the look of triumph in her eyes.