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Daddy's had the Sugas since before I was born. He isn't supposed to eat cake on birthdays and he needs naps every day. But I always see him eating stuff he shouldn't. I catch him sneaking from a stash he's got behind the cereal boxes. He keeps it in a coffee can. It's mostly old candy--whatever gets left over from Easter or Halloween. Sometimes I take from it, something sweet before school, but I don't really want it, I think I just want to get some of it out of his hands. I know he must know I steal from it, but he won't say nothing to me 'cause he doesn't want Ma to know. Ma doesn't drink coffee so she don't know about the stash.

I'm thirteen today. My cousin Darius gave me his old bike yesterday for a surprise. Ma says stay out of the street so I rode it on the sidewalk outside our place, and Daddy was watching all afternoon after he woke up from his one o'clock nap. He likes to stand in the living room, leaning out the window, to watch the sidewalk. We live on the ground floor so it's just like he's outside. And I can keep him in the side of my eye while I'm riding, his head resting on his hand and his elbow in the corner of the windowsill. His eyes always look so shiny these days, and this summer he just keeps looking at me saying, "You're a woman, you're a woman now. Look at yourself--you're a woman." And when he says it there's something about the look on his face that makes me believe him, and then I think if I'm becoming a woman then that means I'm gonna get married and--every time without trying to--I get this sick feeling in my stomach and think Daddy better hang in till then.

I get scared about it because last month he almost passed out in the living room, and I had to run to get Ma from Aunt Cece's down the block. I ran down the block so quick I forgot to put my sandals on. I could've stepped on glass and the guys at the bodega on the corner yelled at me something I couldn't really hear, something about my body. And Daddy was back at our place lying on the carpet, curled onto his side. One of his arms was up against the wall like it was reaching for the window. He must have been standing at the window like he likes to do, watching the people pass by. I remember his belly looking big to me when I found him, but it was still moving up and down and his eyes were opening and closing. The Mets game was on his yellow plastic radio and it was also on the floor with him. I remember someone had just got a home run and the crowd was cheering.

Before I ran I shook Daddy to wake him up but that was stupid 'cause I already knew what was happening 'cause I'd seen it before. Like one time when we were at Coney Island he came out of the water and he was walking crooked and shaking and almost falling down and I had to stand with some nice strangers and watch while Ma called 911 and found a juice box for him from somebody's cooler. I thought about that when I was next to him in the living room and I thought maybe I could do the same thing but I was too scared to mess it up 'cause I didn't know if he was passing out from the Sugas being too high or too low so I left and I ran as fast as I could and didn't know my bare feet were on the pavement till I got to Aunt Cece's.

But Daddy was okay. Ma ran back faster than me and she put honey on his gums and slapped his face and he came to and stayed lying on the floor saying over and over he'd be better about doing his shots right, but Ma wasn't listening really and kept his head in her lap, patting his hair and repeating, "Oh God, you stupid man, you stupid man."

That night before bed I wished for him to stop having the Sugas and for him to never pass out again. But it probably wasn't a real wish 'cause I didn't have anything to wish on. We can't see stars in the city. But today I'm gonna have a party and cake and candles and a real wish. I'm glad about that 'cause I don't know what else I can do for Daddy. Gramma always tells me I should pray not just when bad stuff happens but all the time, but Gramma's the only one left in the family to pray. I tried a couple times. It's like talking but no one talks back. But maybe I did it when Daddy was passing out because I remember when I was running back with Ma I said in my head Please let him be breathing still please let him be okay. I don't know who I was talking to. Maybe I was just talking to me.

And he was okay, but I don't think my praying, if I was doing that, had much to do with it because I was angry, because he is stupid like Ma said. I don't think you're supposed to pray when you're angry at the person you're supposed to he praying for. Daddy's a grown man and he can't seem to take care of himself, can't just stop himself from doing the things that'll kill him. I don't get it. It doesn't seem hard to keep yourself alive.

It's almost noon, but I want to stay in bed a while to feel the way you do on your birthday, that feeling in your belly and your heart like there's something different going on and you're the only one who knows it. Like for a second when you wake up, you're the only one in the world.

My bed is pushed up next to the window, facing the backyard and the back of the other short houses. They all have flat roofs and are made of brick or that dirty-looking panel stuff. Ma says I'm lucky to grow up in Brooklyn like she and Daddy did 'cause it's the city, so I'll be more mature before suburb girls, but it also feels like it's not the city 'cause all the buildings are short and there are apartments inside houses. Even if it's too bright to see stars, we can still see sky, and right now I can see birds flying from wire to wire between my building and the others.

When I go into the kitchen, Ma is standing at the kitchen table cutting a giant watermelon and two cantaloupes into triangles and cubes on top of a spread-out newspaper. Juice and seeds are everywhere. I take some cereal from the cabinet and before I put the box back I check inside Daddy's coffee can. He's running low.

"Just cereal? Have some of this melon, too. The rest is for the party," Ma says.

I come over to her and she gives me a tight hug into her big chest and she smells like coconut and laundry and the fresh watermelon.

"Oh my girl is a teenager today. I can't believe it," she says, and she lets go and hands me a cut of melon.

"Babe, am I old?" she yells to Daddy in the other room.

"Nah, Peaches. I'm old. You're still young," we hear him say.

"Okay, that's what I thought." And she winks at me.

"When can I ride my bike today?" I say. I'm eating the cereal and melon standing at the sink since Ma took over the table.

"Oh honey, please, maybe not today. Maybe not till later. You have to be around for when everyone gets here. And you can help Daddy set up. Cece's bringing cake. Darius. You know."

"I'll be careful. I just want to--"

'You just want to end up like that poor boy I saw get hit on Flatbush? Oh, that boy, all broken lying up on that minivan's hood. And the driver looking white as a ghost, stuck staring through the windshield. Lord in Heaven, that poor boy--"

"Ma--" I interrupt because I've heard this story a hundred times. And now I don't want any more breakfast so I put the bowl in the sink, still full of cereal, and take another bite of the watermelon for show because Ma is watching what I'm doing and then drop the rest into the cereal bowl.

"Babe, why don't you give Mary something to do?" Ma yells to Daddy even though she's still looking at me.

I figure I should shut up, and Daddy yells for me to come help him collect the streamers and we bring them out back. It's really sunny outside but it's not so humid like it is most of the summer, and there's this different kind of breeze. School is coming up next week so it kind of feels like those days do, when the sun is still really warm and you can tell that we're about to be in fall but all your school clothes are too hot to wear.

We hang the red and orange streamers along the wooden fence and twist them together. Daddy looks good today. He seems to have more energy but he still looks at me like he's sad, kind of like he's asked me something and I'm not coming up with the answer. I think he's going to tell me I'm becoming a woman again, but he doesn't say it.

Once everyone shows up, Daddy and Darius light up the grill and we eat burgers, but the smell of lighter fluid makes me want to faint. Daddy always uses too much and Darius stands next to him holding matches with his arms crossed acting like a man. Every once in a while Darius picks up a spatula and flips a burger and then points to some coals or something and then Daddy looks too and they talk some more like this fire is the most amazing thing they've ever seen.

Aunt Cece and Ma sit in folding chairs next to the kiddy pool trying to not have a fight. I guess Ma's still mad at Cece for letting Darius give me the bike. Their feet are in the pool 'cause no one here has kiddies anymore and they drink Coke and rum out of red plastic cups and pretty soon they get onto other topics and are refilling their cups and laughing.

Gramma's sitting with me at our kitchen table that Darius and Daddy carried outside. It feels funny to sit in my usual spot but have my toes in the grass.

"How are you enjoying your day, sweetness?" Gramma asks me.

"It's been good, I guess. You like my bike?"

"Yes. But you have to promise me you'll be careful on it. I don't trust any of these people driving cars to watch out for you. Now I'll have to ask God to watch over you even more now."

"He doesn't have to. I'm sure I'll be fine."

"Well, I'll mention you to Him and let you know what He says, okay? I've already got to talk to Him about Darius." Gramma lifts her skinny arm and points at Darius. "Look at that boy, thinking he's a man now."

I look over at Daddy and Darius standing behind the smoke of the grill eating their second burgers.

"Does my Daddy look okay to you?" I ask her.

"He looks like he always does. Why?"

"No reason." I look down at the broken potato chips and melon rinds and stains of ketchup on my plate.

"What's the matter, Mary? You got the birthday blues?" she says. 'That's okay. Birthdays can be hard days even when they're good ones. It's different once you're my age."


"There's more looking back than forward. You, you have a lot left to do. But not me; I'm good. I've done it. I'm just waiting to see your Grandpa again."

"Do you miss him?"

"Every day. But you know, he's with me all the time. He's sitting next to me now, happy to see you growing up. And someday I'll be with him again. Then we'll be able to keep an eye on you all the time."

Then she opens her arms all dramatic and looks up and says: "I'll be ready when He comes; I'll be smiling."

In the last hours of my birthday I sit on the stoop with the front door open behind me and scratch my name in the paint of my new bike with Daddy's pocketknife. I blow on the metal and the "R" gets clear and I brush bits of dark green paint off my legs before I start on the "Y." The neighborhood is quiet and the sky is bright blue but turning black. Down the block I see two men wearing dark clothes and Tims smoking on the corner outside the store. One of them looks like he's telling a story: his arms move side to side and point like he's acting something out. The other guy just nods and leans against the painted horse Daddy used to put a quarter in for me to ride.

Ma drank too much Coke and rum and laughed a lot with Aunt Cece so she went to bed early. Gramma left before the sun was down and then Aunt Cece left too. Darius stayed behind to sit with me on the stoop. He asked me what I wished for when I blew out the candles today, and I told him I wished Daddy didn't have the Sugas, but then I was scared it wouldn't come true 'cause I told him. He told me it don't work like that and I'm too old now to think it does. Then he said: 'You can't do shit about your Daddy having the Sugas." And then he gave me a hug and left me on my step, yelling "Happy Birthday" while he ran away.

Just remembering it I think I might cry but I shouldn't. So I won't. I hear Daddy walking around all heavy inside, and then I close my eyes to focus on the sound. I hear some hums of air conditioners but under them I hear Daddy in the kitchen scuffing in his slippers like he's trying to be quiet but he's never known how. He opens the fridge and I hear the sound of tinfoil.

I get up and go inside.

"What are you doing?" I say from the doorway.

"Jesus child, where'd you come from?"

"I was outside," I say. He's standing with a fork at the table. The leftover cake is just a lump of white and red icing and yellow crumbs and strawberries. It's still half covered by the foil. I see some sugar letters left: a cursive "M" from my name.

"I'm eating cake," he says all serious and sits down. I watch him take a bite and blink but kind of actually hold onto the blink a little too long, keeping his lids shut. He looks sad and relaxed.

"Ma drank too much today," I say and sit down next to him. I stick my pointer finger in some icing and squish it onto my thumb.

"I know she did. She's out cold."

"You didn't eat cake at the party," I say and lick off the icing I got all over my fingers.

"Yep. I was good," Daddy says, and he gives me a weird look, not nervous, not all the way sad, but something else. Frustrated or confused or disappointed. He's got cake on his fork waiting in front of him and he looks back at it to take the bite.

We sit and don't talk while Daddy eats. Outside, the Chihuahua from next door yaps at something, and we listen till our neighbor yells for him to shut up and come in.

"What did you wish for?" Daddy asks me, and he picks up a melted candle that got left in the cake and waves it at me. I take a deep breath and look at him. His cheeks look so round and his shoulders soft. He's got gray coming in at his temples and for that second he doesn't look like my Daddy to me but like my Grandpa and I think about my next birthday and the one after and the one after and I wonder what he'll look like on those birthdays and then I get that quick scared feeling in my stomach and I think all the times this summer he called me a woman with his sad glassy eyes, and I realize that he was seeing what I'm seeing now.

I take a deep breath and squeeze the hem of my shorts in my fist.

"I wished I could ride my bike in the street," I say.

"Oh, Mary. You're too sweet sometimes. You know, you're in luck, because that's a wish I can help you with," he says. Then he motions down the hall with his thumb and says: "Don't worry, your Ma's not waking up till tomorrow."

I watch him put the tinfoil back over the cake and gently set it back in the fridge. He turns to me holding the door open. His eyebrows are raised.

"You know what to do if your Ma notices something is up with this cake, right?"

"Yeah, I got it, Daddy."

Daddy doesn't watch in the window. He comes out to stand with me next to the bike. He's still in his slippers. He tells me to be careful and just ride up and down a couple blocks, to Aunt Cece's. There shouldn't be too much traffic around now but he tells me to keep my eyes open.

I can breathe in really deep on the bike because the air is cool and feels clean. I see the traffic lights hanging above me and I pass by the gold light of the corner store that's streaming out onto the sidewalk. My legs move so fast and my knees go up and down, up and down almost sliding across where I scratched my name. I stop pedaling and hear the wheels spinning and the gears clicking and I stand up to glide across the overpass of the Prospect Expressway and underneath me cars are speeding and swerving.

I come up to Aunt Cece's and Darius is on the stoop resting on his elbows, and he whistles at me but I'm already leaning 'cause I'm already turning back.

Daddy stands in the middle of the street. Daddy stands on the dotted line looking for me, looking at me, but he can't see me yet. I move faster, closer to him, and his head tilts when he sees me. He puts his hands up, his arms above him and out wide. He looks like he's going to catch me, and before I reach him he looks up to the night like he can see stars.
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Author:Dubus, Madeleine
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Short story
Date:Dec 22, 2016
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