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RUNNER UP IN 2022 UNCONVENTIONAL LOVE STORY CONTEST™ JUDGED BY JON LINDSEY & ALLIE ROWBOTTOM  

Sugar Waffle


He wants to watch pigs with celebrity sobriquets round a track to classic rock. She wants to pet sheep in ag buildings. They buy a sausage and split it and decide they’ll go for tapas after the fair. “Upstate sparkle,” he says, “we’ll wash it down.”

They look for the sheep. They look for the pigs. They find bleachers beside an above-ground pool. People file up the steps and sit on the silvery benches. House music bounces off the water. Handlers in polo shirts and khaki shorts lead dogs onto the deck. The handlers slide in the pool. They tempt the dogs with toys and gestures. A retriever dives through a hoop. A pug swims zigzag around vertical posts. A woman in gold performs on a trapeze that rises from the water, lifting higher as she air-dances. Dogs tread a circle beneath the woman in gold. He slouches. She nods into his chin. They climb down the bleachers. She sees a trailer and tent. Cages inside, dogs. Two shaggy and damp, towels draped over their backs. 

He rubs her back and says, “Let’s get you a sugar waffle.” Crowds and litter humidify the walkways. She clomps beside him, purse strap clutched up her shoulder. She attended each year in her youth; she wanted to come back. He has exact change. A woman in the window takes the money and wipes hair from her forehead with her bent wrist. The fryers need a minute. The power had gone out and come back. “The waffles won’t puff right if the oil’s not hot.” She leans her head against the trailer. Painted sprinkles dance around teal words. He stands close, before her face, asks if she feels okay. She nods. The woman passes a puff of bakery tissue through the window. He tips two dollars. She eats half. He carries the rest and offers the bitten edge.

Trash floods the nearest can. They find one less full by some restrooms. She didn’t have to go until she saw the line. He  disappears around the other side. By the time he comes back she’s moved only a few steps. He asks if he should get ride tickets. “I feel like a perv waiting with you.” “That’s a pervy thing to say.” He buys the tickets and sits on a curb near an onion ring stand.

Someone in a hunting store shirt asks if she’s ready. The shirt has fish on it with a wide-open mouth. “Wake up,” the person says. She doesn’t want to. The stall door’s smudged and written on. She locks it and breathes in her hand. Wine slushie and sausage smells fill her palm. A yellow rubber shoe peers below the partition. A voice says, “Hey, neighbor.” The bathroom smells like bleach and sawdust. Scratchy paper towels. Thin bath tissue.

The crowd has tripled since morning. He can’t see where she stands. She could run off, elsewhere, without him; she could live another life. He thinks of swift exits, distances, fractures in feeling. Then she’s before him. They wander the midway. Sideshow tents promise the attractions are REAL and ALIVE.

He shells out and loses on balloon darts. The person who puts the money in an apron pocket looks at her like, “I’d win you the big one.” She doesn’t want the big one. Sugar waffle sweet on the corners of her mouth. A stickiness she tries to pat from her fingers with a frayed napkin. Each time he throws she winces at the colorful bursts. The man in the apron discounts the darts and gives them more tries than the sign says they get for their money. The man sets five darts on the carpeted bar between them and says they may have them for seven. They already spent five on three. More than a prize, she wants to feel he tried for her. A swell. Lonely she used to think, toted through buildings. A quarter across a counter. Cold milk on her tongue. She drifted. Her parents’ hands around her small wrists. She longed to press her face into someone else’s and scream down a track because they couldn’t stop.

He wins her a tie-dye zebra. She pets the purple yarn mane and thanks the man with the apron, who tells her, “Thank daddy.” She does. “Now give him a hug.” They hug, hip to hip, a distant slow-dance.

Their seams have that stitching. She did not notice until she did. Older said something about them both. None of this made as much sense to her as the first meal they shared. Palm flat over a votive flame. Her silver bracelet warmed, burned her wrist. The lights too dim to see the plates. They ate shadows. The hall he pulled her into darkened the further down it they walked. They pressed close as they could to the wall. His hands under her. A door could open. She thought she heard hands rolling flatware, a spoon stirring around a bucket. Glints and flashes. Ducts strobed the dark. She held her breath and when she couldn’t he kissed her. Their throats gas hissing on a stove. Anyone could know. Hand over her head. Her bracelet rang against the wall.

He watched from the windows while she watered the hosta, dress dripping off her. She knelt at the butterfly bush, snipped brown flowers from the purple-blue blaze.

“Rome, your heart goes there,” she sang in the shower. He thought she sang grows. He thought she heard it in an old movie. He asked and she scrunched her face. “It’s just something I think of when I wake up.” They sheared each other from dullness. “How does it work,” he wanted to know. They were in the kitchen. She looked up from her crossword. “Like this.” She meant that part. He knew she meant how else when she resumed penning in a six-letter word for cat.

The Spider Lady said, “I had a daughter with two legs. How does that happen?” The Spider Lady said it tough and cracking. Eight high heels, four pairs of black pumps with gold insoles on the ground beneath the stretched web. He reached for her hand. She looked at her two feet in wedge sandals, sawdust shreds on her toes. People filled the tent. Someone wanted to know how the Spider Lady cooked dinner. “I don’t,” the Spider Lady said, “I catch it. And that’s all.” Outside, visible wideness. “That felt weird. I didn’t like it,” she said. No hands under the table. No dim hallways down which they could disappear. Want made a room; they’d left.

Faces over tea light. Elbows on the dented copper table. The person who takes their order describes the taco special and explains how many pieces each appetizer includes. She dislikes when he does this. Asks how much for how much.

When she suggested the fair he said, “It’s not that everything’s expensive. It’s that we’ll smell sausage for days, even if we don’t eat any.” She wrapped her legs around his waist and said, “We should go.”



Gina Nutt is the author of the essay collection Night Rooms (Two Dollar Radio). She lives in Ithaca, New York.


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