Sweetness & Light
Sweetness hid behind the corner store. She sat stone-faced and angry but to a casual passerby she looked scared. The sleeves of her hoodie hid her hands and she sat quietly as the Dominican boy came out from the back of the store three times with the garbage bags and heaved them into the dumpster. The next time he came out he handed her a bottle of water and a bag of chips—a large bag, which she opened greedily. Sweetness thanked him with her eyes and a nod and he went back into the store.
Jones Jones stomped around the house yelling for Sweetness to come out and get what was good for her. Light, her younger sister by two years pretended nothing was going on and sat on her bed reading.
“You’re bleeding, Daddy,” Light said as soon as her father barged into her room. He was bleeding from his left ear and the blood was leaking down the side of his face and onto his blue coverall work clothes. “Where’s your sister?” Jones demanded to know. “She did this.”
“Dun no,” Light said softly so her voice wouldn’t show her fear. She looked back down at her book hoping he would leave her room. He turned to leave and Light saw the pint of something sticking out of his back pocket. Soon, she thought, I’ll be a woman and have to keep something by my bed like Sweetness does. The locks don’t do no good. Then she shivered, thinking that perhaps he wouldn’t wait for her to be a woman and she put down her book and looked out her bedroom door. She heard his snores coming from the living room and soft-walked to the kitchen where she took out a steak knife and slid it up her pajama sleeve. She poked in the kitchen for a snack knowing full well that there would be nothing no matter that today was payday. She grabbed her father’s chicken from his plate and quick-walked by the living room and up the stairs to the cacophony of his snoring.
Light took the flashlight from under her pillow and pointed it out of the window after switching it on. She left it on the sill and turned off the overhead light. A short while later Sweetness, seeing the ‘all clear’ appeared in her doorway and eased the door closed and braced a chair against the door knob. “Anything?” she asked and almost smiled with relief when Light handed her their father’s chicken dinner.
The fifteen year old Sweetness, her intense hunger modulated by the chips and water, ate slowly and deliberately for a couple of minutes before offering some to her baby sister who shook her head no. “I had chicken and greens,” she said, “and I’m full and my stomach is so nervous I couldn’t eat any way.”
“Did that bastard try anything with you?” Sweetness asked.
Light shook her head and lowered her head and scrunched her eyes closed tight. She took the steak knife from under her pillow and showed it to Sweetness. “I’m gonna be ready if he comes anywhere near me,” she said trying her best to sound tough—all seventy-seven pounds of her.
Both girls knew that if they could only hold out a few more weeks their mother would be home and he’d get all he wanted from her—even if he had to smack her around a bit. They’d been counting the days to her release and marking them off on a calendar hanging on the inside of Sweetness’ closet. He owed their mother big time for talking the eighteen month fall for him. She, Queenie Jones had never done anything illegal in her life but she agreed to plead guilty to stealing the silver from the house she cleaned because she couldn’t afford to keep her girls on a cleaning woman’s pay, even if she still had a job, and Jones made enough money to keep them from going foster.
It was the last red X the girls put on the calendar when they ran down to breakfast. Their father was there, standing at the stove and asked them how they wanted their eggs or would they prefer pancakes? They looked at each other realizing that he was happy that Mom was being set free today and things could get back to as normal as possible.
“Can we skip school and go with you to pick up Momma? Light asked.
Jones didn’t answer.
“What time is her bus coming in? Sweetness asked.
Jones said nothing and put a stack of pancakes in front of each of them and moved the maple syrup in between them.
“Tell us Daddy.”
“C’mon, Daddy. Don’t toy with us. What time is Momma getting in?”
“Your Momma’s not coming in today,” he said.
“What happened? When’s she coming?”
“She won’t be coming back her,” Jones told his daughters. “The court thinks she’s a bad influence on you both and has ordered her to stay away. We got divorced and I have custody and we just have to set a few ground rules and everything will go smooth for the Jones family, if you know what I mean.
“Where’s Momma going?”
“Out of state. If she doesn’t go out of state and stay away from you they will lock her up again.” Jones let that sink in before he told the girls what they didn’t want to hear and how the Jones household would take orders from Daddy Jones and there’d be no sassing back if they knew what was good for them.
Two days later it was payday and their father’s dinner had gotten cold waiting for him to drink up his manhood and courage. Sweetness and Light promised each other that they would help each other and if he tried anything they’d run off in the morning. They each pack a shopping bag of clothes and necessities and took their small savings from their individual hiding places hoping that none of this would be necessary.
They fell asleep together in Sweetness’ bed and were awakened by the slamming of the front door and their drunken father bumping into furniture as he headed for the staircase up. He pushed open Sweetness’ door and saw the girls hugging each other in fright and protection.
“Light, “he slurred. “You can stay and watch cause you’re ready. I saw the blood stains on your sheet. Jones staggered towards the bed and pulled a pint of bourbon from his hip and drained the balance in three gulps. He then threw the bottle against the wall over the girls’ heads. It didn’t shatter but bounced back to him giving him another chance. As he bent over to pick it up the shot went off and Jones fell over backwards, a stunned look on his face.
The police came and took Queenie away in handcuffs. Her girls were hugging her and crying and she said to shush and listen. I learned a lot in prison—too much and I wanted to keep this monster away from you.
Sweetness, when he visited me in the prison those few times, he told me what was going on and that he had himself two women and didn’t need me no more. I couldn’t take it and got here as soon as I could. I can handle prison but you don’t need his messing with you anymore.
“But Momma,” Light said. “I’m the one that shot him not you. I should be the one going to prison and you should be staying home.”
“Light, honey. You’re confused. You were hiding under the cover when I came out from the closet and shot him. Where would a young girl like you get a gun anyway?”
Sweetness held Light closely as the police led their mother away in handcuffs. Queenie never accepted any of their visits or responded to their letters.
Jones Jones didn’t die but he probably often wished he had. He was paralyzed from the waist down and his two strokes left his arms mostly useless. Sweetness often dressed and undressed provocatively in front of him making lewd suggestion that she knew he couldn’t handle.
The girls made his food but wouldn’t feed him and he waited for the aide to come every other day to wash and clean him.
When he was finally taken to a nursing home Sweetness adopted Light and they struggled through life as was to be expected, never taking their father’s calls or opening his letters.
The weight came off the day the nursing home lady showed up at the door and told them he had died. They said thank you, but no thank you on the funeral arrangements. They never knew that their mother had gotten permission to be escorted to his graveside service. She arrived and left in a police cruiser, dry-eyed both ways.