Sugar Babies and Fireballs

A serendipitous discovery, misinterpreted as theft


By Cynthia Adams

I dove for the Atomic Fireball where I spied it, lying on the grocery store floor beneath a Lance crackers’ display. My father was talking farm subsidies with Mr. Little, proprietor of the Red & White grocery store.

It was easy to shimmy beneath the wire display and snag reach the prize.

The display didn’t topple. A minor miracle. Proof, too, that the fireball was meant for me.

I might have escaped with my treasure, which was stuffed inside my jaw, had Mr. Little not offered me the usual free, quarter-sized sucker. I rolled the gob of burning hot candy aside with my tongue and muttered, “Thank you,” clutching the grape sucker with a clock face in bas relief.  Not such a big prize in my opinion — suckers were what doctor’s offices dispensed.

They occupied the bottom rung of candies in my mind.

Briefly, I considered the fact that I had scored both a fireball and a sucker, which seemed a bit of a coup. My father seldom left the Red & White without a paper “sack” of Mary Janes or Tootsie Rolls, which he also loved. He somehow had grown distracted by the endless dissection of soybean crops and forgot about the penny candies.

Had I done something worth rewarding — say, not sassing back or doing my chores without complaint — I got a box of Sugar Babies. Not quite as wonderful as a candy bar but still a high value candy that lasted. Sugar Daddies, the king of all suckers, had a thrillingly destructive reputation. My best friend Judy cracked a front tooth from eating one, henceforth sporting an enviable gold rimmed tooth.

Outside, Daddy wheeled on me.

“Where did you get that, Cynthia Anne?” he growled, pointing to my bulging jaw. I said what every 5-year-old would have said.

“I dunno.”

My father placed the groceries inside his never-washed blue Chevy, with the kind of rusted patina that antique pickers now adore, and he gave me the hardest look I had ever gotten — at least since I had rifled through his pants one morning, taking change to play the jukebox at the cafe beside our house.

“Chantilly Lace,” with a hit of Butterfingers or Sugar Babies was my heroin, and I would, as proven, even steal for them. I played the “Big Bopper” Richardson hit repeatedly that afternoon, spinning like a whirling dervish, and word got back to my dad.

“Don’t you ever steal again,” he ordered. “Or I will tan your hide.”

But now my eyes burned, not from the heat of the fireball. I was stung by the injustice.

“I didn’t steal it, Daddy,” I whined. “It was on the floor.”

“Deny it again and you will get a whipping.”

“I didn’t steal it,” I muttered.

He furiously hoisted me onto the truck seat “To think you stole from Mr. Little, who always gives you a free sucker!”

At this, I sobbed out, as the burning fireball swiftly became its own punishment. Nobody sucked on a virgin fireball without precautions. Usually, I would have spat the fireball out and run cold water over it until the scalding red coating wore off to get to the safer white sweetness beneath.

But I could no more spit out the fireball than I could explain to my father how the ancient law of finders keepers/losers weepers applied to this very situation.

Surely, he knew.

“You will have to pay Mr. Little. And — ” he paused, swallowing back his anger — “apologize to that fine man. For being a thief.”

I sobbed louder, strangling on the fireball, which was burning its way through my inner jaw.

My father slammed the old truck into reverse, and we drove the short distance home.

“You have really disappointed me,” Daddy muttered as we chugged into the driveway.

He was not one to let a thing go.

I went to my room, reeling. Now, fireballs represented nothing but trouble — like peppermints did after my sister slapped me on the back, lodging one in my throat. As much as I had hated peppermints, I now hated fireballs.

I eavesdropped as my father told my mother about the thief in their midst.

“She is spoiled, Warren. You did this, always giving her candy,” she replied.

I felt the hot tears roll. Both of them!

Something desperate and dark took root in my belly. The fireball still burned but lacked the shocking earlier heat. I sucked it until it was a tiny and innocuous orb, usually the best part, the part you suffered for.

No finders, keepers, I thought bitterly. Loser/weeper.

I later recounted to my sister why I never wanted to return to the Red & White.

“I wish I’d never go-ed,” I blurted, swearing off Mr. Little’s free suckers for life.

Go, go-ed, my sister would hurl at me long afterward whenever anything went sideways.

I winced and resented each time she taunted me, but I nursed a deeper resentment for that roving fireball, which had marked me a bad citizen in the eyes of those who counted most in my world.  OH

Word to the wise: Don’t leave sweet morsels under displays on the floor when Cynthia Adams, a contributing editor to O.Henry, comes to visit.

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