The Ballad of Sugar and Doo

Sugar worships Loretta Lynn, even named her dog after Loretta’s husband. She dreams of being the next big Nashville singing star. There’s just one problem: Sugar is almost completely deaf.

I smell the Pacolet River seeping through the screened porch. Trash and chemicals from the textile mills dump into Lawsons Creek and take a ride down to the river. My nose stings with the mix of Mother Nature and man’s mess. I roll over, feeling the bite of the cold metal cot where my thin mattress rests.

“Sugar.” Mama leans over the sink into the window to make sure her voice is heard. I look up to watch her lips. “Get on up.”

Mama says I can sleep out here on the porch as long as she don’t hear no complaining. My room is all pale peach walls with pink scarves draped over the lamps. It’s a wonder there ain’t been no fire. The ambiance is worth the possible tragedy. My older sister, Loraine, takes up the other half of the room. Come this time each summer, Loraine’s body combines with the summer heat to shrink the space.

My cotton nightshirt sticks to my pale skin. My body is already a woman’s, even if my mind still deals in races to the creek. Nature ain’t fair like that. Course, there’s 22 months between me and Loraine, but it stretches out more like a decade.

Her sophistication is that of a woman with her own kitchen and garden to tend. She mistakes my disdain for jealousy. I don’t mind none. It keeps Loraine out of my hair and better yet out of my physical space. Besides, the hearing don’t see the world the same.

I’m not completely deaf. In fact, Doc Whaler says, “Sugar, I think all the words go through your ears to your noggin. You just choose to process what you want.” Then he laughs so hard he makes himself a whole ’nother chin.

When I was born, all those tiny ear bones people have were missing. With nothing for the words to bounce off, I couldn’t hear. Mama didn’t even notice until I went to proper school.

When I was born, all those tiny ear bones people have were missing. With nothing for the words to bounce off, I couldn’t hear.

By then, I’d learned to read lips and had developed my signature monotonal response to about everything. No one ever bothered to ask if I was uninterested or if I couldn’t hear. Three surgeries and years spent back and forth on the road to the fancy doctor in Atlanta, and I could hear some. My life is not much different for it.

I’m on the cusp of 16 and sleeping on my mama’s porch, where a stranger would be hard-pressed to find one speck of pollen. The sun has long since been up, which means Daddy has been working on at least a mile or so of road. Daddy is in asphalt. That’s how Mama says it.

“Joe is in asphalt,” she says, as if she’s holding a mint julep in a copper cup.

She don’t pay no mind to Daddy coming home coated in layers of sweat, muck, and silvery black specks. Some of those black specks have become part of who Daddy is. Buried so deep in his skin they’ve meshed.

“Sugar,” Mama says but adds a letter “h,” so it comes out sounding like, “Shuga.”

“Sugar! Get on up and fold your sheets.” She jostles the cot with her knee. She’s so close to my face I can smell her cup of morning coffee.

I drag myself out of my own thoughts and from my slumber. I feel the vibration of a body throwing itself against the screen door.

“Doo boy! Where you been?”

I jump up to let my dog Doo in. He’s sopping wet. Probably been down to Lawsons Creek for a morning dip. It doesn’t sound half bad in this humidity. Doo lowers himself to the wooden floor in one whomp, letting out all the air in his body as he puts his chin on my foot.

“I love you too, boy.”

I pull the Emerson one-speaker jam box off the shelf that also holds some of Mama’s canned green beans she’s brought up from the cellar. The beans glisten in the morning sun like rare gemstones.

I hit rewind and let the cassette tape run all the way backwards. I can’t miss one note from Ms. Lynn’s mouth. The honesty of her words transforms to pure grit, which settles down in my soul for me to examine over and over again. Loraine says I alienate myself with music. She just hates I sit so close to the TV that I block her view.

I never miss a chance to watch Ms. Loretta Lynn sing on the TV. Her costumes overcome me, and I watch the words form on her lips, memorizing the shape of each one. She’s my idol. Ain’t no woman gonna take her man, that’s for sure.

Loraine often catches me with my ear pressed up against my Emerson jam box. Normally, I smell Loraine when she enters the room. Mostly, she smells like her White Shoulders perfume. As if Loraine is sophisticated enough for White Shoulders. She pokes fun at my singing. Poking fun at my speech problems I can’t help. It’s just the way I’m made.

But Doo loves my singing. Slaps his tail against the floor to applaud.

“Sugar! For the last time, fold up that mess!” Mama’s face is red from irritation and the heat.

I pull the thin cotton sheet off the bed and let it drape over Doo. He doesn’t stir a bit.

“Sugar Barlowe! I don’t even know who you belong to at times.” Mama storms out to the porch and pushes the screen door open, demanding that Doo leave.

I don’t belong to no one. I’m Sugar Barlowe, the next Nashville singing sensation.

I’m swaying my head and hips to Jessi Colter sweetly telling me about storms never lasting when I hear the screen door ricochet against the frame. Someone is angry. I shove the rest of the sheets into the washer and dance my way toward the porch.

“Mama! Mama! That stupid dog has ruined my dress. Just look! It’s covered in creek water and mud.”

The shrieks are so loud that I peek around the corner to the porch. Loraine is standing there in a chambray shirt-dress with the entire front soaked and splotched with red mud. Doo is waiting patiently at the screen door as if someone should let him in to finish his masterpiece. Mama makes a beeline for Loraine and the dress.

“Oh, honey. We can’t get this mud out in just a wash. What time are you supposed to meet the girls?”

Loraine and her girlfriends meet at Teggy Jackson’s house all the time. What they do there I will never know. They treat it like some top-secret club, I suppose to make them feel more special than they really are. Loraine and Teggy are going to Wofford College come August. Gonna be roommates. Makes me gag.

Mama grabs Loraine’s sun-kissed arm and drags her through the doorway toward the laundry room, shoving me out of the way. I’m used to being shoved to another spot. Don’t belong to nobody in this house. Except for Doo boy.

I grab the Emerson and plop down on the naked mattress. I place my best ear next to the small speaker and lose myself in the vibrations. Daydreams overtake me and send me on adventures.

Tomorrow night, I’m going to slip off this porch and behind the wheel of Daddy’s company truck. Doo boy will jump into the passenger seat, my co-pilot on this adventure.


About the author

Rather than go to therapy, Katy Goforth writes stories and hopes that her friends and family don’t realize they’ve become her characters. When she’s not writing, she’s traveling the country following her favorite musicians and collecting oddities. She was born and raised in South Carolina and lives in Anderson with her spouse and two dogs, Finn and Betty Anne.

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