By Theo Greenblatt
Sugarbaby, Sugardoll, Sugarlump. These were all the names my dad used to call me. There was a 50s song he liked called “Sugar Lump,” and he would sing it to me in his goofy, off-key voice, “Sugar Lump, Doot-doot, Doot-doo-wah,” sometimes dancing me around the living room, with my feet on top of his. When I was little I liked it, but by the time I got to high school, it drove me crazy. I wanted him to call me by my real name, to see that I was a person, not a doll or a lump. I started calling him Steve instead of Dad, to make a point, which really bugged my mom. But it was too much trouble to remember to do it every time I talked to him, and anyways, he just laughed at me.
We would sit at the dinner table and my mom, annoyed—she used to be annoyed a lot—would say, “Ste-eve,” drawn out into two long syllables, like stretching a piece of gum. And she didn’t need to say anything else because we always already knew what she was annoyed about. Some bad joke of Dad’s, or a crude remark to my brother, Joe, about sports or girls, or maybe some political thing she didn’t want him to bring up in front of us. She had a rule about no politics at the table.
Dad would puff out his lower lip all exaggerated, mom would roll her eyes, Dad would say, “Sorry, Honey,” and then “Pass the peas, please,” even when there were no peas, because this was supposed to be funny and neutralize the tension. For a while Joe and I would laugh and fake passing a dish, and talk in silly English accents—I’m not sure how that was connected to peas but we thought it was hysterical. Joe had a pretty good accent, too. But later it got to seem as stupid to me as Sugarlump. Sometimes everything about your family is stupid and embarrassing.
Anyhow, the point is, I didn’t want to sound like Mom when I said “Steve,” but I’m pretty sure I sounded like her anyway when I drew out the word “Da-ad” in the same irritated tone, a hundred times a day.
Of course this was all before the “diagnosis.”
Once Dad got sick, we stopped having most meals at the table. At first we all had dinners on trays in the living room in front of the tv, where Dad was set up with his recliner and his crocheted afghan from Gramma Claire. Then we had to rent a hospital bed that we put in the dining room, and shoved the big table against the wall, piled high with medicine and Depends. Now Dad is pretty much stuck in there and Mom tries really hard not to be annoyed about anything. But she did start going out and smoking on the back porch, which she had quit doing before me and Joe were born, she said. Mostly she does this at night, after she gets Dad settled in with his shots and his diapers. Ironic, Dad is dying of cancer—pancreas, not lung–but still, she’s out there puffing away as if she wants to kill herself, too. But still, again, I guess you can’t blame her because it all just sucks.
Last night I was in the living room with the tv on, trying to do some math homework, when I heard this sound like a scratchy sort of hiccuping. I thought it was the cat throwing up so I ignored it, but then the cat walked in from the kitchen and the noise was still going on. Mom was out smoking and Joe was upstairs playing Grand Theft Auto, as usual, so it wasn’t either of them.
I went to the bedroom-that-used-to-be-the-dining room door, which we always leave open a little, and peeked in. I could see Dad’s face, just a slice of it in the greenish light from the clock-radio. Yeah, we still have one of those, because Dad likes to listen to the baseball games not watch them. Anyhow, I could see just enough of his face to tell that he was crying. I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about going to get mom, but I didn’t want to freak her out. I’ve never seen him cry in my whole life.
“Dad?” I said, not stretching it out at all. “You need anything?”
There was a long silence. I don’t think he knew I could see him. I watched him wipe his face on his pajama sleeve and hoist himself up a little onto the pillow, and over to one side. It looked like a huge effort.
“Come here, Sugarlump,” he said, patting the edge of the bed.
I pushed the door open wider and went and sat down where he was patting, careful not to bump him because he bruises so easy.
“I know you don’t like it when I call you that,” he whispered. He put his hand on top of mine and patted a few more times.
I nodded. “It’s okay, Steve,” I whispered back. His lips cracked into a grin. He started humming that song off-key like the old days. We stayed like that, his hot hand over mine, until his humming faded and he fell asleep.
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Theo Greenblatt’s prose, both fiction and nonfiction, has appeared in Cleaver, The Columbia Journal, The Normal School Online, Tikkun, Harvard Review, and numerous other venues. She is a previous winner of The London Magazine Short Story Competition. Theo holds a PhD in English from the University of Rhode Island and teaches writing to aspiring officer candidates at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, RI.