A Little Sugar

It all started, this time, with a 4-pack of crème horns from Tom Thumb. Greta bought them, and some pecan twirls, to take to the Thursday morning Bible study. But she'd no sooner gotten the groceries in the car than she tore into the package and ate a crème horn right there in the parking lot. The pastry shell flaked all over her shirt, but she couldn't be bothered to hunt for a Kleenex.

She ate two more horns and took a couple sips of her Tab before she even put the key in the ignition. Then she drove home, eating the last one on the way.

Until the crème horns, she hadn't eaten sugar in months, ever since she'd seen a born-again nutritionist on the Trinity Broadcasting Network who ordered his viewers to avoid it altogether. That and white flour, corn syrup, MSG, and all processed foods. Also fluoride (in toothpaste and drinking water), phosphates (in laundry detergent), and aluminum (in deodorant and make-up).

"Those things'll kill you," he said.

So many dangers, all over her very house! Greta had tuned in every day to find out what else might be killing her.

Since cutting sugar out of her diet, she'd lost 73 pounds, was down to 133. When she called her daughters, she told them of the evils of sugar, the importance of soy, Amway's great deals on phosphate-free detergent. At least once a day Greta forwarded them nutrition information in email, but neither of them acknowledged it.

Nor did they respond to the Noah's ark or dumb blonde jokes, the "10 more commandments" message, or even really crucial ones like what's behind FEMA and the dangers of water boiled in the microwave.

Actually, Martha, her oldest daughter, did respond to the one about the microwave. She said that she'd verified on some website called Snoops or Snopes or something that water really can be dangerous when heated in a microwave. Then she thanked Greta for sending the message. As if she had to check up on her mother, as if Greta would have sent something untrue!

- - -

When Greta finally told her daughters she'd fallen off the wagon with the crème horns--five months after that fateful parking lot day-they sent her a card with a picture of a hippo on the front. It was blank on the inside, but both girls had written messages.

"Everybody needs a little sugar," from Martha.

"Remember, Mom, a pack of crème horns does not a hippo make," said Sara Beth, the baby, now 23. Martha was gaining on 30. Which meant Greta, now 61, was grandmother material. She was, in effect, a grandmother without a grandchild.

Greta wondered if the hippo was supposed to symbolize her. It was pink, and it was smiling.

But it was a big, fat hippo. Just like her.

She rummaged through the video cabinet where she'd hidden the Mr. Goodbars from her husband, Bob. It was unclear to Greta why she'd hidden them since Bob didn't give a damn what she ate, probably didn't even notice how big she got. But Greta had been sneaking desserts through three husbands, now, and she was used to it. She couldn't enjoy a candy bar properly out in the open.

She hid the Mr. Goodbar under her shirt and climbed the stairs to her bedroom. She went in the bathroom, locked the door and sat on her vanity stool with her back to the mirror. Then she tore into the candy bar, devouring it just as she'd devoured innumerable pecan twirls, éclairs, doughtnuts, and candy bars in the months since the Great Crème Horn Fiasco.

- - -

Greta's daughters were both thin and always had been, just like their father, except in their faces, which were large and square like Greta's and tended toward a double chin.

Both had left Texas and moved to big cities in the Northeast--Martha to New York City and Sara Beth to Philadelphia. Greta didn't know how to talk to them now.

Martha laughed outright when Greta warned her about the likelihood of a U.N. takeover. And when Sara Beth received the potassium chloride pills Greta had shipped, just after September 11, to the bar where Sara Beth worked, Sara Beth asked her not to send any more packages to the bar. "I can pick them up at the post office, Mom," she said. "It's really no bother."

"Now, if there's a nuclear attack, take the potassium chloride right away to fill up your thyroid and keep the radiation out," Greta said.

"Oh, O.K.," Sara Beth said. "So how are the dogs?"

Greta's daughters came to see her once a year if she was lucky, and they were pale and wore black and talked like Yankees. Sara Beth was forever disappearing into the guest room to smoke pot, while everyone pretended not to notice. And Martha sighed when Greta said she didn't want to drive into Dallas to see a Japanese movie with subtitles or to "check out a hip little restaurant in Oak Cliff."

Greta wondered why her daughters didn't like to visit. After all, the cute girl next door, BJ, who was a couple of years younger than Martha, popped over most afternoons just to make sure Greta was O.K. BJ went to church every Sunday and was raising her son just right. Only 8 and he already spoke in tongues! Even BJ's husband came to church from time to time, although he gave off a real Anti-Christ spirit. But you couldn't blame BJ for that. She relied on the man to pay the bills.

- - -

Nowadays Greta sits down every morning with a pint of Chunky Monkey and puts the entire thing away before lunch. She knows she should stop because it's a sin for her to be so fat and unattractive to her husband, but he won't wear his false teeth anyway, so why should she care?

She still wears the blonde wigs he likes, but he didn't touch her even when she was down to 133, so he definitely won't touch her now, at 200 even. It's been so long since he touched her that the thought of his hands on her body, his tobacco-stained fingers against her flesh, turns Greta's stomach. To compensate she makes a grilled cheese sandwich with brie.

Brie makes her happy. It's the one thing Sara Beth and Martha brought from the Northeast that Greta actually likes. She hadn't had brie in years until they reminded her of it. Not since her college girl, cocktail party years.

She pulls out the rest of the brie wheel and spreads it liberally on Ritz crackers.

It's 1:15, and time to water the garden, but it's been so hot with the drought this summer that Greta just can't bring herself to do anything more than move the sprinkler over next to the zucchini. Even the dogs look wilted, all 9 of them lined up on the back porch, in the shade.

- - -

Back when she started gardening, four years ago, Greta bought a few food dehydrators. Every day she spent hours canning and pickling jars and jars of food. It's all in the back of the basement now, ready for her daughters in case the Rapture takes her away. In case they find their way back to Jesus and Texas during the Tribulation.

On their most recent visit to Denton, Greta showed the girls the storage closet lined with her home-grown fruits and vegetables in tidy, labeled jars and cans. "That's a lot of relish and canned beets, Mom," Sara Beth said. "Hungry much?"

Later, she overheard Sara Beth say to Martha, "you realize we're going to be the ones who have to deal with all of that food one day, right?"

"I don't even want to think about it," Martha said. "I just hope she doesn't get botulism."

Greta's Sara Beth, her little baby, failing to realize what Greta has done for them! She'd have expected it from Martha, Little Miss Philosophy Professor Know-It-All with her feminism and tattoo. But not from Sara Beth, so natural and fun and striking, like Greta herself back in school.

- - -

Polishing off the last of the cheese and crackers, Greta recalls the time when they lived in Oklahoma and she ran the Wednesday night Bible Studies for Garth Powell, a minister ordained by Oral Roberts. Garth was handsome and soft-spoken, with a big church in Tulsa. The girls, just darling in their brown calico jumpers, sang every week in front of the whole congregation.

"I'll fly away," they sang, in perfect harmony, "O Glory, I'll fly away."

And then Greta climbed up behind the pulpit and taught the lesson.

She remembers Lester Sumrall anointing the girls' heads with oil. He looked into Greta's eyes, clear into her soul, and said, "These girls are protected by the Blood of the Lamb. They will live long and faithful lives if you'll believe with me right now in Jesus' name."

And Greta did, with a faith that could move mountains. With a faith that would, she knew, keep her girls safe and finally bring them home.

About the author:

Maud Newton lives in Brooklyn, New York, along the main commercial garbage route for New York City. On hot summer nights, trash trucks and Atlantic City-bound buses idle beneath her window, causing her to dream of accidents involving heavy machinery. Her work has appeared in storySouth.com, Eyeshot.net, MiamiStories.com, Outsider Ink, and elsewhere.