Michael Sheehan is a writer of novels, short stories and very bad poetry. He lives with his family in Charleville, Co. Cork. In 2017 he won the Over the Edge Short Story Competition & Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award. Also, in 2017 his first novel The Sugar Sugar Café was short listed for Mercier Press Novel Competition. In July 2018 Dalzell Press published The Sugar Sugar Café. This book is both a novel and a collection of linked short stories. In 2018, Michael completed a second novel, The Onion Sellers of Cork. In 2019, Michael completed a third novel, The True Adventures of Setanta.
The Sugar Sugar Café
North Cork 2012
My only customer in the café is a high school skipper who’s trying to squeeze the pus out of a humongous zit. Just for the hell of it, I call out to him, ‘Everything alright there, hon? Can I get you something? A pair of pliers maybe?’
‘Any chance of a latte?’ the school kid says in his cute Cork accent.
‘Tole you already hon, we only got regular coffee here.’
‘How’s about a cappuccino so?’ he says.
‘Cappuccino’s not regular, hon. Say, shouldn’t you be in school today?’
‘Sure you should. Everybody’s got school today.’
‘Shouldn’t you be in an American circus?’ he says.
I wipe the ketchup stains off the laminated menu and look out the window at the traffic going by.
My son, Billy, was twelve years old yesterday. Twelve years old. I can hardly believe it. Billy has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The medical folks shorten those words to ADHD, but the abbreviation doesn’t come close to describing the problems Billy has. There ought to be some kind of warning sign that tells you to raise your voice whenever you say those words. Those words ought to be written large like the Hollywood sign: ATTENTION DEFICIT HYPERACTIVITY DISORDER. Nothing can describe the temper tantrums, the screaming, the restlessness, or the crying. Nothing.
Simple things can set Billy off. We could be sitting at home watching TV and if the phone rings or the door buzzes, Billy can turn from this beautiful child into a possessed demon. When Mattie, his deadbeat dad, was around he used to call Billy his ‘little shark’, on account that Billy never stops moving.
Billy goes to St Stephen’s School for Boys; it’s a regular school but Billy’s in fifth class when he ought to be in sixth. He’s had his fair share of setbacks and he gets bullied sometimes. I blame his teachers; they just don’t know how to handle him. Billy needs constant stimulus or he gets bored and that’s when the trouble starts.
Sometimes Billy will ask a question or two in class and the teachers don’t like it. They say no other boy asks so many questions. The teachers think there’s badness in him. It’s not badness; it’s a chemical imbalance and that’s what causes his spells. Just last month he got sent home from school for threatening to smash a teacher’s head in with a pencil box. Hasn’t everyone wanted to say that to a teacher at some time or other? He’s a good kid, really he is, and talented too. When we’re in the park, Billy can lay his head on the ground and hear the grass grow.
We were living in New York when Billy was diagnosed with ADHD. It wasn’t any great surprise that he’d some sort of medical condition. At least we finally had a name for it. I’ve heard other moms say that their children never slept as babies, but in Billy’s case it was true.
My mom would call me every other day from Buffalo offering advice. She used to say Billy needed more discipline; we needed to spank him more. When we spanked him, she called us unfit parents and threatened to call the cops. Next, she blamed it on too much TV; she said the damned child got all his learning from the TV.
Then she blamed the toons and the sodas and candy bars; and then it was all New York City’s fault.
Mattie claimed he always understood that there was something not right with the child. He said I’d been in denial about the whole thing for years. When Billy threw himself out the bathroom window, dressed in his Superman suit, expecting to hover in the air like he was Clark Kent Jnr, we realised the problem was beyond us. Luckily for Billy, we lived in a brownstone, only one floor up, and he landed in the bushes.
The doctors gave us medical leaflets and names of books to buy, and Billy was prescribed Ritalin. In the beginning, each time I’d give Billy his Ritalin meds, I used to say a little prayer that this would be the pill that finally cured him. Mattie and I thought it was going to be a temporary thing. Nobody told us it was going to last forever.
Billy felt special, seeing all the different doctors; there was a different one every time we called to the medical centre. Some doctors increased the dosage of meds; some decreased it. The doctors gave us phone numbers of various support groups around Manhattan and we stepped into this whole new world—the world of being the parents of an ADHD child. It was there we learned it would last forever.
The first thing you get to learn as the parents of an ADHD child is that nobody loves your child. That’s the very first lesson right there. People pretend they do, but they don’t. Not the nurses, not the doctors—especially not the doctors—not the shrinks and not even your own family. You and your problem child are more than an inconvenience to everybody else. Your child is a freak and guess who you are? You’re the parents of that freak.
It was in a cold parish hall on East Thirty-Seventh Street that we first listened to other parents of ADHD children tell their stories. They looked a lot like us: tired. Mattie held my hand as we listened to the stories. Most of the parents were having problems with their little boys. Not so many had problems with girls. Their stories sounded a lot like ours: the screaming, the fighting, the cost of meds, schoolteachers who didn’t give a shit, schoolteachers who didn’t even know what ADHD meant. Doctors who didn’t give a shit, doctors who charged for prescription refills. Some parents had two and three children with ADHD. I couldn’t imagine what their lives must have been like. I know God will forgive me when I say that if you have one ADHD child, why the fuck would you want another? When some of the parents started calling it a ‘gift’, I sighed and gripped Mattie’s hand tighter. Lemme tell you, it’s no gift.
Then one fine day, Mattie announced we were moving to his home place in Ireland. Just like that. Like he had solved a niggling clue in a crossword puzzle. Everything would be a whole lot better when we moved to Ireland. Mattie described the fresh air and the green fields and the education system that was second to none. And his parents, Bridie and Ollie, would love to help us cope with Billy. I was just too tired to put up an argument. So, I chucked away my waiting job in PJ Clarke’s on Third Avenue, packed our belongings and, without giving it much more thought, followed my husband to Rathluirc, County Cork.
When I got this waitressing job at The Sugar Sugar Café, I learned that members of Alcoholics Anonymous get coffee for half price. This is because Jerry, the boss, is also a member of the brotherhood. Those were his instructions on my first day at work.
‘How will I know who’s in the brotherhood and who’s not?’ I asked him.
‘You’ll know them when you see them. Mostly they’ve got bad skin and really awful haircuts, and they look like the kind of guys with a lot of regrets,’ Jerry said.
‘Okay, I’ll be sure to watch out for that,’ I said.
‘Anything else?’ he said.
‘Yeah, what kind of tips can I expect to make?’
Jerry laughed so hard I thought he was going to choke to death, right there in front of me.
Then, another fine day, not long after I got this job, Billy’s father walked out on us. Just like that. He left a note on the kitchen table, beneath a can of Batchelors baked beans. I think the note was really for his mother. He took all our savings and the car, leaving me and Billy stranded in Rathluirc, with nothing but each other.
Jerry gave Billy a present of a mongrel pup. It was a scrawny thing that Jerry promised wouldn’t eat much. He said I could take all the scrap food I wanted from the café. Jerry was all wrong about the dog’s appetite. It might have been a scrawny thing, but it ate like a pregnant horse.
From the beginning, Billy and that dog couldn’t be separated. Lemme tell you, the dog has had a freakish calming influence on him. Billy talks to the dog more than he talks to me. I watch them play together in the fields at the back of our house. Since getting that dog Billy has even started doing some chores. And his teachers don’t phone me so much to come get him from school.
Yesterday, as a birthday surprise, I took Billy to see The Hunger Games in the movie theatre in Blackpool, Cork city. As a special treat I bought two jumbo tubs of buttered popcorn and a couple of sodas.
In the darkness, I hustled him down the aisle towards the screen, away from the other kids, and corralled him into the seat next to the wall. Billy loves the movies, especially the toons and gore movies.
Then, half way through and before I could stop him, he leapt out of his seat and cried out, ‘The hunger games have begun, the hunger games have begun!’ I reached to grab him, but he was already gone from me. Billy kung-fu kicked into the air shouting, ‘Happy hunger games!’
The other children laughed at him as he ran up and down the aisle karate chopping invisible warriors. And for shame, I sat down again, lowered my head and ate my popcorn. I watched the rest of the movie and pretended he wasn’t mine.
The brass bell over the door goes fring fring, and I turn to see an old lady push herself into the café. She’s built like a midget wrestler. Lidl bag in each hand, she sways around, searching for a seat. That’s the trouble when there are so many empty seats: nobody knows where to sit. I give her the laminated menu and I stare out at the trucks passing along Main Street. I’m thinking that, after she’s eaten her regular scone, she’s gonna head straight for the ladies’ restroom, like she always does. Then she’s gonna pee all over the floor and after she’s done, I’m going to have to clean it all up.
When I pick up the cold coffee mug from the schoolboy’s table, he glances at an opening in my blouse.
‘Still here, hon?’ I say.
Anyway, the bell goes fring, fring again and in comes Vincent. He takes a seat at his usual spot—table 8. He lays the Racing Post across the tabletop like it’s a treasure map. There are little lumps of bathroom paper stuck to his throat, like he has leprosy or something. Over here they call Vincent a ‘gentleman farmer’, which means he owns a couple of acres of scrubland that makes no money and he lives off a cheque that comes from somewhere over in Europe.
‘Coffee please, Alice, and be nice to me this morning,’ Vincent says.
‘Sure thing,’ I say.
‘No, Alice, I mean it. I’m not feeling great today.’
‘Not good at all, ’tall,’ he says.
‘Aww, poor baby, got that ole vodka flu again,’ I say.
Last Christmas, after we’d closed up for the holidays, Jerry and I went for a drink in The Auld Triangle bar on Main Street. I was still in my skanky café uniform. Jerry drank sparkling water and I was throwing back a local take on a vodka sea breeze. Jerry kept checking his Amish sideburns in the Johnnie Walker bar mirror.
A pal of Jerry’s yelled out ‘Happy Christmas!’ from the far end of the bar counter. A guy in a three-piece suit that went out of fashion sometime before they invaded Vietnam.
‘Jerry, happy Christmas, aul’ stock,’ the guy yelled again.
‘Yeah, happy Christmas,’ said Jerry softly as he fiddled with his shirt buttons.
The guy raised his glass in a toast to Jerry. Jerry’s response was to barely raise his glass of water off the counter.
‘Merry Christmas to you, sir,’ I yelled to the guy.
The guy pushed his way through the crowd and down to our end of the counter.
‘Jerry,’ he said. ‘Please introduce me to the lovely lovely lady.’
‘The lovely lady is called Alice and she’s from New York,’ said Jerry.
‘I’m from Buffalo but it’s close enough.’
The guy’s name was Vincent. His eyes were bloodshot and wild. He held my hand tenderly in his and for a moment I thought he was gonna kiss the back of my hand.
‘Alice is married with a child,’ Jerry announced.
‘Not anymore I’m not. I mean I have a son but I’m not married anymore.’
‘Me neither,’ said Vincent.
‘Say, it’s kind of late, what time does Billy normally get to bed at?’ said Jerry.
‘I’m sure the sitter will take care of Billy,’ I snapped back.
Vincent insisted on buying me a Baileys shooter and Jerry left the bar complaining about the noise.
I explained to Vincent how I came to be living in Ireland. When I told him about Billy, I got all lonesome for the kid in a stupid kind of way and almost started weeping right there at the counter.
Vincent could never be convicted of being handsome, but then neither could I. When they played Bing Crosby on the bar stereo, Vincent and I sang along. He told me about his horses and offered to let me ride one of them. He said Billy would love his horses. Like he’d know what my Billy would love!
‘So how do you like working for Jerry?’ said Vincent.
‘I love Jerry,’ I said, ‘but not in a romantic way. Jerry’s a great guy.’
‘Jerry is a gas man,’ said Vincent.
‘What the fuck is a “gas man”?’ I asked.
I wished I wasn’t still wearing my stupid ugly work uniform. I hoped to Christ that Vincent couldn’t smell the cooking oil from my clothes and hair. In the ladies’ restroom I bought disposable toothpaste and a packet of condoms. I brushed my teeth. The hot water faucet wouldn’t work. I tried to clean ‘top and tail’ using damp bathroom paper, though I still hadn’t made up my mind.
The cab that pulled up outside the bar was the size of a small school bus. Vincent introduced me to the cabby as ‘Alice the American waitress’. The cabby’s name was Paudie. Only in Ireland do you have guys named ‘Paudie’. I couldn’t get my tongue around all those vowels, so I called him ‘Paddy’. Every time I called him ‘Paddy’—and I did it a lot—they laughed and Vincent corrected me.
‘It’s Paudie. “Paw” followed by “dee”. Isn’t it, Paudie? Isn’t that how you say it? Try it again, Alice. Say “pa”, as in “you shot my pa” or like, like “my dog has four paws”, and then just say “dee”, and put the two of them together and then you have it.’
‘Okay, I think I got it. How you doin’ up there, Paaaadeee?’
The rain poured down from the black sky, ratatating against the windshield. I snuggled into Vincent’s chest. The dirt road leading to his house was full of holes and ridges. The cab hopped out of one pothole and landed in another. It was as if the road was juggling with it. Every time the cab hopped, the cabby shouted, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’. Vincent bounced up from his seat and almost landed on my lap. He had no change, so I paid the fare.
‘Alice, won’t you please excuse the mess? I gave the maid the evening off,’ Vincent said.
The house was big, old and damp. Vincent went looking for a bottle of tequila. I sat on the bottom steps of the stairway and tried not to think about Billy.
‘You live here all alone?’ I shouted to the darkness.
‘O Sole Mio,’ he sang back.
‘Awful big house, he’s got an awful big house,’ I said to myself.
I took off my sneakers and smelled their insides. Vincent appeared from nowhere and clinked together two green long-stemmed wine glasses.
‘I have salt but I seem to be just out of lemons,’ he said.
‘You ever been married, Vincent?’
‘Once, I was married once.’
‘Once is enough for anyone,’ I said.
‘Amen to that.’
The damn tequila burnt like hell. I followed the first hit with another and it didn’t burn anymore. Vincent sat on the steps beside me. He put his arm around my neck and pulled my face towards his and there was no going back after that.
It was sometime after two when I saw the headlights of Paudie’s cab bouncing down the dirt road, coming to collect me. It was still raining.
‘Do you mind if I smoke, Alice?’ Paudie asked, as I got into the back.
Hank Williams was playing on the radio. The moon was big and bright and I sang along to ‘Lovesick Blues’.
Standing beneath the street light outside my house I straightened myself out as best I could before turning the latch on the door. Mrs Roche, the sitter, was reading a magazine on the couch. She gave me one of those extra-long sighs of hers. She never said anything when I was a little late. She didn’t have to.
Anyway, now Vincent pretends he’s forgotten everything that happened that night but I know he knows, and he knows that I know he knows, and it gets all Donald Rumsfeld after that. What can you do? You gotta keep on moving, that’s what you gotta do.
Vincent orders scrambled eggs on toast without looking up once from his paper. I give his order to Carl the chef.
Fring, fring! Burnt Toast comes into the café with a copy of The Irish Times tucked under his arm like it’s a sergeant major’s baton. He settles down at table 5. I pass him a menu but I know already what he wants: ‘Two slices of burnt toast, two slices of crispy bacon and coffee’.
Burnt Toast rummages through the pockets of his denim jacket and places items he finds on the table. It’s like he’s going through a security check. A cell phone, a pack of Gitanes, a box of matches. When he finds a red little notebook, he sighs with relief. He thumbs through the notebook until he finds the page he’s looking for. He writes something in the notebook. It’s like he’s drawing pictures of me or he’s writing something about me.
Last night, while at work, I got a call from Mrs Roche. Something was wrong with Billy. He’d gone for a walk with his dog and when he came home there was blood on his hands. She said he was upstairs in his bedroom with his head under a pillow, refusing to talk to her. She started calling me ‘Mrs Woods’ even though she is years older than I am.
‘Is Billy hurt?’
Mrs Roche brought the phone to Billy. His voice was broken and he whispered something about the dog. I couldn’t make out what the hell he was saying about the damn dog.
Mrs Roche took the phone back and said Billy was frightening her. She started coming on all, ‘I’m not able to deal with this. This is not part of the job. I didn’t sign up for medical emergencies.’
‘Is my Billy hurt? Is he bleeding? Where is he bleeding?’ I asked in the calmest voice I could muster.
‘I’m not sure that I know that,’ she said.
I grabbed my coat and hurried out the door leaving Carl to deal with the customers.
When I got home, Mrs Roche had already gathered her knitting basket and pattern magazines. I crawled onto the bed beside Billy. There were bloodstains on the pillow and the sheets. At least he hadn’t wet the bed. I searched his body and I couldn’t find a single cut or bruise.
‘Where did all this blood come from?’
‘Where’s the dog?’
I brought him to the bathroom and made him take a shower. I know how he hates for me to see him naked but for once he didn’t put up a fight.
I changed the sheets and pillowcases and tucked him into bed and lay beside him stroking his face with my fingertips. He lay so still. I wanted him to lie still like that forever.
‘Billy, please tell me what happened to the dog?’
‘Got run over by a white van. It was an accident. Nobody else saw it. I brought him over to O’Brien’s field and buried him under a pile of stones. Mom, I even put a cross there.’
Billy talked as coolly as if he was describing something on a toon show he’d seen on television. I lay there on the bed, watching over him, stroking his face, knowing he was lying but not knowing why. I promised him Jerry would get him another dog soon.
‘Okay, Mom,’ he said.
I kissed his forehead.
‘It wasn’t a rock that done it, Mom—it was a big white van,’ Billy said.
I looked out his bedroom window. It was still bright outside: the summer nights are long here. I left his bedside light on and his bedroom door open. Then I went into the kitchen, cut myself a slice of birthday cake and fixed myself three fingers of Jim Beam.
Burnt Toast starts waving the menu at me like there’s a chance he’ll get lost in the crowd.
‘Tole ya, hon, be right with ya,’ I say.
Carl slaps the cowbell to let me know Vincent’s scrambled eggs are ready. The radio beats out some commercial jingles and I feel very tired.
I watch Vincent mark out the day’s runners at some race meeting. The unlit cigarette is still dangling from the corner of his mouth.
‘Fring, fucking fring!’ The kid who was cutting high school steps out onto Main Street. He stands on the pavement with his full satchel hanging from his shoulder. He looks up the street and he looks down the street, not sure where to go next.
The little old lady starts rummaging through her groceries for something and Carl slaps the cowbell once more.
He shouts out, ‘Alice, Alice, get over here.’
Carl always has to say my name twice when he gets in a panic.
It’s pushing on for 11.45 a.m. and it starts to rain again.
© 2019 Michael Sheehan