“Sugar Pie” by Jim Butler

When Jackie Barron was doing something real bad—like running in the house or talking back to his grandmother—she would grab aholt of his arm and say, “Boy, if you keep actin’ out your Uncle Isaac is going to come and get you and put you in the pokey!”

Jackie’s uncle was the sheriff in Hutchins County, Tennessee, and Jackie stayed a little while with Uncle Isaac and Aunt Norrie every summer. They lived right there on the first floor of the jailhouse in Coal Creek. You had to walk up a real steep staircase to get to the lockup, which was on the second floor, and Jackie liked to play up there in the cells, which were usually empty.

The summer when he was ten years old was the summer when he met the prisoner whose name was Alonzo.

Aunt Norrie had picked Jackie up in their ’41 Ford—they had an old Packard station wagon that Uncle Isaac used when he was doing sheriff work—and they talked about all kind of things on the drive back to Coal Creek. Jackie always liked talking to Aunt Norrie because she was interested in just about everything that there was, and she talked to him just like he was a grownup.

When they pulled up at the jailhouse, Uncle Isaac—looking to Jackie like he was ten feet tall—was headed for the backyard carrying one of them great big pots that he’d probably took off a moonshiner when he busted up his still. One time Jackie heard his granddaddy talking to his buddy from the Mason’s Lodge, and his granddaddy was saying, “You ever notice how Isaac don’t never arrest the moonshiners? ‘Course he don’t. Before he got Jesus, he used to be one of their best customers. Isaac may be a lot of things, but he’s not no damn hypocrite.”

The sheriff stopped long enough to ruffle Jackie’s hair and say, “You behave yourself and keep your Aunt Norrie company, boy. I’ll see you at supper.”

That was just about all Jackie would hear him say all summer. At first he used to worry that his uncle didn’t like him, but Aunt Norrie said, “No, he loves you, Jackie; he’s just not one for a lot of talking. He doesn’t talk all that much to me, either. In the days when he was drinking you couldn’t shut him up, but those days are gone. Sometimes I almost miss them.”

After Jackie put his clothes and stuff in the room they always saved for him, he came back out to the living room, where Aunt Norrie already had the ice-tea and the checkerboard all set up.

While they were playing, Aunt Norrie said, “I’ve got a surprise for you — we’ve got us a prisoner who’s been here over a month! He did something real bad up in Kentucky, and we’ve got to wait for some papers before we can send him back. His name is Alonzo.”
“Can I go up and look at him?” Jackie said.

“You don’t go ‘look at him,’ Jackie. He’s not a caged animal. I’ll take you up and introduce you as soon as we finish this game.”

After hearing that, Jackie had trouble concentrating on checkers (he won anyway). He figured the man named Alonzo must be somebody really special; he didn’t remember anybody ever staying there in the jail for more than one night. About the worst that ever happened in Hutchins County was when some of the soldiers back from the big war with Hitler and Hirohito would get in a fight at the beer joint out on the highway. Uncle Isaac would bring them in and throw them in a cell to sober up. The next morning he’d just holler at them and let them loose. Isaac thought they all ought to be treated like heroes, and he wasn’t about to drag them up in front of no judge.

When Aunt Norrie took Jackie upstairs the prisoner was stretched out on the bunk in his cell, with his head propped up on a pillow that looked just like the pillows in Jackie’s room. All the other cells were empty, with mattresses folded up on top of the bedsprings.
There was a bucket of soapy water with a mop in it just outside the prisoner’s cell. The door was standing wide open.

“Alonzo, you ought to pull that cell door shut when you’re in there, “Aunt Norrie said. “This is a jail; you know.” They both laughed and Alonzo pulled the door to, so that he was looking at them through bars.

Jackie could see that the man wasn’t young—he hadn’t shaved, and his whiskers had enough white to show that he was forty if he was a day. He’d grabbed his blue denim work shirt and put it on, but Jackie had seen some wiry arms sticking out of his undershirt. He wasn’t a big man like Uncle Isaac, but he looked like he could take care of himself in a fight.
Aunt Norrie said, “Alonzo, this is my nephew Jackie; he’s about the smartest little boy you’ll ever meet.”

The man named Alonzo laughed and said, “I’m pleased to meet you; I ain’t known a lot of smart people in my life.”

When they were going back downstairs, Jackie whispered “What did he do?”

“You know I don’t talk about that kind of thing, Jackie,” his aunt said. “Every prisoner’s innocent until the court says he’s guilty. Let’s just say, I don’t hold with what he did, but love can make a body do some terrible things.”

“Is it all right if I go back up there tomorrow?”

“I don’t see why not,” Aunt Norrie said. “He’s not really a bad man in his heart.”

The next day, Jackie woke up to the sound of a hammer. When he peeked outside he saw it was Alonzo, nailing some boards together on the back porch. He looked up at Jackie and said, “Somebody’s gonna break their neck on these stairs,” and went back to hammering.
After breakfast, Jackie went outside and found Alonzo mowing the yard in front of the jail. Aunt Norrie was around the side of the building, pulling some weeds out of her little garden. When Jackie bent down to help her, he whispered, “Is it safe for him to be out like this when Uncle Isaac isn’t here? Aren’t you afraid he’ll escape?”

Norrie smiled a sad kind of smile and said, “I don’t think he’d run away, no matter what. I think he’s just tired of running.”

When he’d finished with the grass, Alonzo put the lawnmower away and said, “How y’all doing over there with them weeds?” Aunt Norrie said they were doing fine but Alonzo came over and helped them anyway.

After supper that night Jackie went upstairs with a new book Aunt Norrie gave him, and settled down in one of the cells. Everything was quiet for a while, until Alonzo stuck his head in the cell door and said, “What you reading?”

Jackie told him, and Alonzo asked him if it was any good, and Jackie said he guessed so; he hadn’t but just started it, and they were both quiet for a minute. Finally Alonzo said, “I ain’t much with books. I got nothing against them, but I didn’t have a whole lot of schooling. I wasn’t but seventeen when I got married. I got lucky, though. My wife’s daddy was in the railroad union—that’s the best union they is, you know—and he got me a good job. And I was good at it.”

“Why did you quit?” Jackie said.

Alonzo snorted. “I didn’t have no choice,” he said. “After what I done, I just took off running. But them railroad years paid off—that’s how come I always knew which trains I could hide on without getting caught.”

Jackie could tell that Alonzo was the kind who didn’t stop when he started talking, so he just listened.

“That worked fine until I made the mistake of being with a Hutchins County moonshiner when your uncle made a raid to shut him down. I always knowed white lightnin’ was gonna get me in trouble someday. If I’d of just bought me a Co-Cola somewheres I’d still be out there on the road.

“The sheriff was about to turn both of us loose until he recognized me. My face is on one of them Wanted posters he’s got downstairs. After that he didn’t have no choice but to haul me in.”

Alonzo seemed to be in a real good talking mood, so Jackie worked up his courage and asked why he was a wanted man.

“Because of my wife,” Alonzo said. “She was a good woman—beautiful woman. Real beautiful woman. Voice all soft and warm; put me in mind of Dale Evans. Her name was Nola Jean but I just always called her Sugar Pie. It was the right name for her. She was sweet as sugar. And she smelled like pies right when they come out of the oven.”
“What made her want to put you in jail?”

“Well, it wasn’t all her fault. It’s just, I come home early one night after I’d been away for a week on the Louisville-Cincinnati run. Her and my friend Jim-Bob Ellis was right there in my bed together. When you get older you’ll understand why I had to do what I done.”

“What did you do?” Jackie asked.

“I kilt her,” Alonzo said.

“Why’d you do that for?”

The old man just shrugged his shoulders, but his face got real sad. “Wasn’t nothing else I could do,” he said. “I come from good church-going people and we don’t believe in divorce.”

Jackie was real quiet for a minute. Now Alonzo wasn’t just a nice man he could talk to. Now he was like somebody in a picture show. “Did you kill ’em both right there and then?”

Alonzo looked a little surprised. “Naw,” he said, “that wouldn’t of been right. Like I told you, Sugar Pie was a fine, fine-lookin’ woman. And if Jim-Bob had of been married to her and I wasn’t? I reckon I’d of done the same thing he done. So I didn’t figure I had any right to kill him.”

After that, Jackie spent a lot of time with Alonzo, helping out in the yard, and sometimes reading to him. Aunt Norrie brought up a kitchen chair for Jackie to sit on in Alonzo’s cell.

The summer was almost at an end when the sheriff from Kentucky came to haul Alonzo away. Uncle Isaac and Aunt Norrie and Jackie were there to say goodbye, but they really didn’t know what more they could say.

The Kentucky sheriff put Alonzo in handcuffs for the first time, and even slapped leg-irons on his ankles. “You don’t have to do that,” Uncle Isaac said, real quiet. “He ain’t going to give you no trouble.”

The Kentucky sheriff jerked on the chain, spit a little tobacco juice on the ground and said, “You damn right he ain’t. He got away from me once and nobody gets away from me twice. That ain’t the way we do things in Kentucky.”

Jackie was sad to see Alonzo go, but he was glad he had met him and talked to him. He even understood why Alonzo had shot his wife but not the man who just couldn’t resist her. Like Uncle Isaac, Alonzo didn’t want to be no damn hypocrite.

Jim Butler, a New Yorker who was born in Eastern Tennessee, has managed to preserve some tenuous grasp on reality in spite of spending many years as a publicist at ABC. While there he wrote a book about the making of The Winds of War and, in the process, survived (and was awed by) Robert Mitchum. When no one was looking he also wrote many magazine interviews. In the ‘60s he wrote lyrics for singers including the young Cass Elliot, The Bitter End Singers, and The Serendipity Singers. Several were recorded, but you’ve never heard any of them. His only previous internet publication was a story in Sunday Salon.

“Jackpot” by Lindsey Walker

There were thirty-four tenants lodged in the rollaway roach motels that made up the Pine Crest Trailer Park, and sometimes Tylee Jackson swore he could feel all sixty-eight eyes (or sixty-seven, to be exact) scorching his skin. He pressed his thumb on the pushbutton latch to muffle the sound of the screen door shutting. He slid his keys from his pocket, clenching his fist around them to stifle their jingle. It was hard to sneak anywhere in the park’s cramped quarters, especially being the only black man residing here, but today, as he snuck out of his own home, he only worried about one set of eyes. Actually, he only worried about that one odd eye in particular, the single sighted eye of Mamie Kaul. As he crept to his rust-colored Buick, he cursed the crunch of gravel under his sneakers. He opened the driver’s side door, and when he did, the hinge yowled like copulating cats, shattering his near-perfect escape.

The screech roused Mamie from her single-wide lair across the lane, answering Tylee’s dread. The spiteful widow’s bare, flat feet slapped against the surface of the plywood porch. Her brown hair flopped in wet noodle fashion over her shoulders; it cleaved to her scalp by two inches of grey regrowth. Tylee felt his whole body rankle at her thumbtack voice.

“Hey!” she said. “While you’re out, pick me up a lotto ticket. Quik Pik’s fine.”

Pick me up a lotto ticket, Boy, was what she implied as her lupine eye regarded him with disdain. Her other eye, the blind one, swam milky in its socket. Tylee wrestled a sneer from his lip.

“Sure thing, Mamie,” he said. “You got cash now? Lotto don’t take EBT.”

“You’ll get your money when I get my ticket.”

The noise of his Buick, its shudder and spit, had also roused the crankhead in the neighboring trailer. Tylee met fleeting eyes with Harley James, who squinted from his window through slats in the blinds, warped by the years of paranoia peekaboo.

Tylee took a left out of Pine Crest and skirted the paper mill, keeping his windows rolled up and his shirt collar over his nose to keep the stink out. His daughter read him a poem once about good fences and good neighbors. He wished he had a fence a mile high between their home and Mamie’s. Her cruel and rotten heart conflicted with her dependence on the other Pine Crest residents. No one could make a cigarette run without bringing Mamie a tribute. His hate spread through his chest like tiny spiders hatching from an egg sac, a visceral hate that crawled around in his guts. He rubbed his hand over his own heart as if he could scrub out the feeling, then passed it over his head. His hair was getting too long and beginning to puff up. He tried not to think about Mamie’s flabby arms in her Confederate flag t-shirt, not to wonder where the port wine stain that began on her neck ended, not to remember the “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Jefferson Davis!” sticker slapped on her hollow metal front door. He pulled into Buddy’s Gasoline & Convenience and said, “Kool Menthol 100s, please, and a Quik Pik. And a Moon Pie. On second thought, make that two Quik Piks.” Can’t win if you don’t play, he thought.

When Tylee got home, he found his daughter hitting the books, and pride caught his throat. She scribbled with violet ink into her robot printed notebook; her eyes ran up and down her worn chemistry text. Chanté was brighter than Sirius (which she had informed him was the brightest star in the night sky). He reminded himself that the move had been for her. He had moved them from the mountains of Watchelet, Tennessee south to Opossum Hill, Georgia, had moved them into the Pine Crest Trailer Park, had moved them right next to that reptile Mamie Kaul, to get Chanté into a better school. He was currently scraping change to send her to the Advanced Space Academy in Huntsville for the coming summer.

“What’d you talk about in class today?” Tylee asked.  “Valence shell electrons,” Chanté answered, “and the octet


“You look like you could use a study break,” he said after a while. “Wanna run this ticket over to Mamie?” Chant­é didn’t look like she was falling for it, so he added, “Picked you up a Moon Pie.”

Chanté huffed and put her book down; as she sulked to his side of the room, Tylee could see the splash of freckles over her nose and cheeks, just like his. Her eyes, though, belonged to her mother, with irises so dark that the pupil was nearly invisible. He placed one lottery ticket on the countertop and handed Chanté the other one. He said, “Don’t worry. She won’t bite unless you provoke her.”

Satan made Mamie Kaul while God was sleeping; he plucked a rib from Cain the slayer and molded it into a mockery of female form. The trailer trash kids whispered this story, and Mamie didn’t mind. The more they feared her, the less likely they were to tromp through her roses, her irises, and her tulips. Mamie had a stake stabbed into her yard where she proudly displayed impaled dodge balls and bicycle tires, much like Vlad Tepes had ornamented his castle grounds. Any time a toy landed in her yard, she broke it, so the kids learned to be careful.

It wasn’t only the children Mamie terrorized; she ruled Pine Crest by injecting it with fear and uncertainty. She didn’t work, and her disability checks allowed her plenty of free time. She spent this free time eavesdropping from her front porch, pretending to read the National Enquirer, sipping backwash sweet tea from a Mason jar. When she folded her arms, her dry skin rasped with a sound like snakeskin sliding over corn husks. Falsehoods rustled on her thin lips any time she spoke. When Mamie had first moved into Pine Crest, Harley had offered to help her unpack. She had caught him later rummaging through her cedar box looking for loot to sell to Hoss’ Pawn. She had slammed the heavy lid on his fingers, breaking his pinkies on both hands. A few months later when another neighbor Trisha didn’t invite Mamie to her birthday party, she had taken a hatchet to the windshield of Trisha’s Impala.

Mamie only laughed when someone got hurt.

Ten o’clock every night, Mamie sat down on her secondhand sofa to watch the local news and the lottery drawing with a bag of orange circus peanuts resting on her dimpled thighs. Her den flickered in the blue glow of the old tv set. It was nearly ten thirty by the time Chanté turned up with the ticket. “‘Bout damn time. I heard your daddy’s car pull up hours ago,” Mamie said, wiping her sticky hands on her sweatpants.

“Well, I guess we was too busy.”

“Too busy or too lazy?” Mamie asked, as she passed a damp and crinkled dollar bill to Chanté.

“You have a good night, Ms. Kaul,” Chanté said, biting her bottom lip and meeting Mamie’s crazy eye. Chanté walked the few feet home in an orchestra of crickets and barking dogs.

Mamie had a mouthful of orange marshmallow when her winning numbers were pulled. A blonde woman with impossibly white teeth held each inked Ping-Pong ball up to the camera. Mamie’s candy fell dumbly from her jaws. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. She leaped to her feet, grinding the circus peanut into her blue shag carpet. She flung open her flimsy metal door and howled. “I’m rich! Y’all can kiss my ass!” Pine Crest’s yellow windows glowed. More lights flipped on as Mamie stamped and hollered. Faces filled the windows and screen doors smacked as neighbors came out on their porches to watch the spectacle. Mamie went back in and, over the next couple of hours, killed off a sixer of Natural Ice to celebrate.

In the morning she dressed in her best clothes; she wore her wide-brimmed hat and the red polyester button-up she usually reserved for funerals or her weekly Confederate Ladies’ League meetings. Mamie’s big purple birthmark was almost hidden by the collar. She needed to drive to the Dalton office to claim her prize and, while she was out, deposit her disability check.

That’s when it hit her. If she claimed her lottery ticket, she could no longer receive her disability checks. Uncle Sam don’t hand out free money to people who already got money. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars was a lot of dough, but not enough to live on for long. She held the flimsy papers in her hands, lotto in her right, check in her left, and stared at them. She sat down on her brown floral-print sofa and took off her hat. Jabbing her toe at the squashed circus peanut, Mamie brooded over what to do.

Her brain hurt, heavy inside her skull. It felt as if all her thoughts, only halfway formed, were clamoring out from the inside to be heard in her ears. Maybe someone could cash the ticket for her? Who could she trust to do that? Not Trisha, that’s for sure. Not bottle-blonde Luann, whose daughter’s presents Mamie’d stolen from her car trunk. The Confederate Ladies’ League was out of the question. They’d want her to donate cash for a meeting hall, something classier than the Shoney’s buffet in which they’d congregated for years.

Maybe she could ask Tylee; he seemed reasonable, in spite of his coloration. She’d have to ask him real sweet-like. Course, he’d probably want a cut of her money, since he bought the ticket and all.

Toward her predicament Mamie felt a frustration, the greyest form of anger, deadening her limbs. She slumped, letting slip her paper strips, useless when paired together. Her vengeful loneliness that once lapped her curved ribs had grown to a suffocating size. Her face felt hot, and her hands that cradled her cheeks glistened with moisture. Mamie didn’t know when she had started crying, but she could not make herself stop. She trembled alone in the depressing morning solitude, interrupted only by the guttural hacking of crows.

Heat undulated off the gravel road that dissected the Pine Crest Trailer Park. Air conditioners growled in the windows of rusted trailers. Days passed without a hiss from Mamie Kaul. People came and went without paying the hag’s tolls. This peace, however, felt thick. Crows scrapped over a squirrel carcass in Mamie’s garden. Insects accumulated on the twisted fly strips hanging from her porch cover. Sweaty tenants pressed their faces to her windows, cupping hands around their eyes, peering into the darkness. “Think she’s dead?” they asked each other.

“Dead folks don’t eat pizza,” Tylee said, pointing his thumb at a Domino’s car pulling into her driveway.

On Thursday, Tylee watched Mamie make an abnormally normal appearance. She didn’t make any demands or cause a scene. In her red shirt and broad hat, she walked briskly to her car and drove off, presumably for her Confederate Ladies’ League meeting.

Pressure had built inside Pine Crest like a shaken beer bottle, and Mamie’s sudden absence twisted off its top. The residents poured into the open spaces of the park, just pitchforks away from the angry mob of Frankenstein. Their feet rustled dust into the air. Only Harley didn’t storm out into the road. All geeked up on speed, he instead watched, seated on his steel front door step. He sucked a Werther’s caramel and ran his sticky tongue over his broken teeth.

“She owes me for a broken windshield,” Trisha said, knuckles blanched as her skin stretched taut over her bones.

“She stole my Kenzie’s presents on her birthday! They were still wrapped!” Luann said.

“Calm down,” Tylee said. “Look, we’ll make a list-“

“A list!? That old bitch won’t respect a list!”

“A list,” Tylee said “of all the things she broke-”

“Or stole!” someone yelled.

“Or stole,” Tylee said, “and when she cashes that ticket, we’ll bring her that list. If she don’t wanna pay, we can call the law.”

“Oh, hell no! I’ma go in there now and get what’s mine,” Luann said, shoving her way through the crowd. She flicked her bleached blond hair.

“What makes you think the ticket’s in there? She’s probably holding onto it safe,” Tylee said. He put his hands on Luann’s shoulders. “You break in there, and I’ll call the police right now.”

“Why’re you acting so nice? That’s your ticket she’s holding hostage in there,” Trisha said. Tylee inhaled and scratched his chin. He’d been thinking a lot about that ticket. He’d held that jackpot in his palm and folded it half in two. He’d stuck the winner in his wallet between his daughter’s photograph and a business card from a bait shop. It had been in his possession for six hours and seventeen minutes before he’d turned it over to Mamie.

“Listen, all y’all,” Tylee said, with a sensation of toothpicks in his throat. “We’re making a list.”

The crowd belched complaints, and a couple of men threw bottles at Mamie’s home; the contents busted on the metal siding and dripped down on the fake rock skirting. After a few minutes, they quieted down and dictated a list of damaged and missing items to Chanté. She inked them precisely into her robot notebook.

Mamie came home in the evening. The moon had only just ascended, casting a pallor the blue of state-fair ribbons over Pine Crest. She had not announced her winnings to the other Confederate Ladies. Mamie hadn’t yet hammered out the details of claiming both her disability and her lotto prize, so she felt it prudent to keep her lips zipped. She slung her swag-bearing purse on the counter. Mamie changed out of her dress-up clothes into sweatpants and a Roy Orbison t-shirt. Her stomach demanded macaroni and cheese, so she lit the gas stove and put on a pot of water.

Mamie settled on dialing Tylee. She hadn’t worked out what to say when he picked up; she figured he’d know why she was calling. The phone rang three times, five times, eight times before Tylee answered.

Intent on her phone call, her ears didn’t hear the clacking noise. Harley used his driver’s license to pop the lock on Mamie’s door. She didn’t notice him until he was in the kitchen with her. His pupils were as big as dimes, and his skin was covered in sores, some freshly picked and still bleeding. His right fist gripped a steel chain with a heavy padlock on the end.

“Ticket,” Harley said, fingers fidgeting. “Where’s the ticket?” Mamie couldn’t answer; her throat locked up on her. She backed up, and Harley swung the chain. It knocked her toaster onto the peeling linoleum, and Harley jumped at the sound. “Gimme the ticket.”

He’s nervous, Mamie thought. He’s used to breaking and entering when no one’s home, but this must be his first time carrying a weapon. Mamie’s hands trembled, but she wasn’t sure if fear or rage caused the shaking. She dropped the receiver. She heard Tylee’s voice, small, coming from phone on the floor, saying “Mamie! You OK? What’s going on?” She knew fight and flight together. Her skin felt drained and pale, but her serpent heart beat cold with fury.

“It’s here. Just a minute,” she told him. Harley wound the chain around his cracked knuckles, then switched it to his other hand. His eyes scoped the room. Mamie’s pawed her purse; she pulled her wallet out.

“Hurry,” Harley said, through his stinking lips.

Mamie’s age-spotted fingers fumbled and pulled the precious ticket from a zippered pocket. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Her lungs felt like concrete in her breast.

“Give it here,” Harley said, darting his eyes and stretching out one hand.

Mamie’s swept the numbers with her yellow fingernails. That’s a lot of dough. She crumpled the ticket in her palm and tucked it into the cooking flame.

“No!” Harley said, but the ticket lit up fast. He surged toward the stove, trying too late to salvage the lucky numbers, and flung the pot off the eye. Mamie ducked to avoid Harley’s chain, but the pot of boiling water caught her square in her face, splitting her skin in layers and blisters. Seeing the wrack of her collapsed body, Harley shook Mamie’s shoulders.

“Get up, Mamie! Jesus, get up!” Harley bolted from the trailer just as Tylee raced up the porch steps.

The hospital room felt cold, and only a thin knit blanketed Mamie Kaul’s body. There were flowers. Someone had sent her flowers. She couldn’t see them through the bandage that covered her eyes, but she could smell them. She could name them by their scents: rose, stargazer, freesia, lilac. Flowers here, yes, but no visitors. Alone with the electric hums and beeps of the medical machinery, she laughed a tarnished sardine-can laugh then nodded off into a drug-thick sleep.

Originally from Chattanooga, Lindsey Walker writes all of her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction with a Southern accent.  She has been published by the Licton Springs Review and by Section 8 Media.  She also won the national prize for best essay from the League for Innovation, the Marcia Barton Award for fiction, and the Loft Poetry Contest.