THE CANDY MAN
by Rosemary Cacolice Brown
As always, Ramon Nunez rises early in his small apartment on the floor above his modest grocery business. He sells coffee, tea, milk, flour, sugar; basic items that all kitchens require, along with a few seasonal fruits and vegetables he picks up from farmers’ trucks on the community outskirts. But to the neighborhood children he is known as the candy man, for his plentiful confections are always displayed in large glass containers on his red, worn, laminate counter near his circa 40’s cash register.
After a quick wash to shake the haze of sleep, he remains in his tattered terry robe and shuffles to the kitchen. As kettle water boils, he pulls the chipped coffee cup he always uses from the cupboard above the stained porcelain sink. It is good enough, he deems. The handle is still intact, firm enough to grip.
Through it all, he is humming—a daily ritual. Nothing anyone would know, just some remembered ditty that he and Lena knew as children in Mexico. Though she’s been gone ten years he imagines her humming along with him, the illusion propelling him through the day as he resurrects blessed memories that keep her near. Lena always hummed through whatever task she tended, especially while kneading dough or crocheting colorful borders on muslin pillowcases.
Breakfast is usually quick and simple, perhaps a piece of flatbread dipped in picante sauce, beans and salsa, or maybe chick peas mixed with sun-dried tomatoes he grows in large clay pots on the small balcony behind the kitchen. With the day-long sun they grow well, filling him with pride.
A few sips of strong instant coffee, and he is sated. Leftovers, if any, are crudely wrapped in wax paper and placed back in the second-hand 1980 Sears refrigerator that he and Lena purchased together on a rainy Sunday. It is always Lena’s refrigerator, never to be replaced, even though the freezer bums out occasionally, and he must pull the plug for awhile to reset it. Someone told him that once and, hopefully, Lena would be pleased by his ingenuity. She was not inclined to spend well-earned money unnecessarily.
Removing the terry robe, he goes to the bedroom and dresses in his uniform of the day, a pair of dark cotton-blend trousers and one of his check-pattern button-down shirts, short sleeves. Sockless, he slips on his well-worn huaraches. A white, bib-styled baker’s apron is next, of which he has four, always hanging on one of two hooks behind the closet door. For a moment he pauses to gaze at what the other holds—Lena’s pastel-colored flannel nightgown. He remains there a second or two longer, caressing the memory of the day she brought it home and how exuberant she was in the telling.
“I will be warm at night now, my sweet!”
Of course, she never really was, evidenced by her faintly blue-tinged lips and fingers, not to mention that she was becoming exceedingly thin, signaling what they did not realize. Her heart was the culprit causing it all.
Such wistful morning-moment is the only time he stops humming.
Pulling himself to the present, he returns solemnly to the kitchen and checks the stove jets, then retrieves his keys from the miniscule plastic flower pot always on the kitchen table. The honorable place for it, he decreed years ago, for its comforting presence exudes the essence of his sweet beloved. Lena always loved flowers, unaware that she was the most beautiful blossom of all.
As the humming continues, he locks the apartment door and pads his way downstairs knowing the little ones will be there to bring him a modicum of joy. As he opens the back wall entry, he sees them waiting with intense eyes, their noses pressed to the window.
“The candy man is here!” they cry out, their faces full of eager expectation.
Always, they rush in to stop at the red, worn, laminate counter. He cannot fill their small brown bags fast enough with licorice, lollipops, cinnamon sticks or whatever else that delights them. But no matter. It is the one time he will smile broadly this day.
Pressing on, the day will hold no distinct measure of recall as customers walk in to purchase whatever staple is needed to replenish pantry shelves. Their pleasantries are sometimes offered, sometimes not, never reaching beyond the obligatory greeting to inquire of anything about him, though he knows many of their names. As hours drone on, he abides his quiet time by counting shelf stock, jotting orders, and indulging in the one pleasure that removes him from the solitary existence he so gallantly endures—reading the newspaper, delivered daily at noon and on time. It helps, quelling the emptiness in his soul, even for a little while.
At day’s end he locks up and, as if by rote, turns the closed-sign to the window just below the cow-bell positioned at the top of the door. He opens the back-wall entry to the upstairs apartment, but will not ascend before replenishing candy in the large glass containers for his neighborhood “niños” —the brightest lights of his day.
Upstairs, the humming resumes as he retrieves something wax paper-wrapped from the old Sears refrigerator, and while eating he’ll check to see if the freezer is still behaving. That done, he’ll move to the bathroom, undress to engage in perfunctory hygiene, then move on to the bedroom to fetch Lena’s pastel-colored flannel nightgown from its hook behind the closet door. The humming stops for a moment as he presses it to his lips before placing it tenderly under his pillow. As he settles into bed the hum returns, bringing her ever nearer. Only when he nods off does it stop.
Since I've been fortunate enough to have many of my stories published, family and friends like to say I'm an author. Though it is so delicious to hear, what I am first and foremost is a suburban wife and mother with a long-held penchant for words that somehow evolved into a real course of action for me. In short, never in a million years did I expect to be in a place where I'd be giving an "interview" about who I am and what I so enjoy doing in my little niche away from the world when time affords.
What I am also is a back-door student to the craft, making the move some twenty years ago, but not without a bit of trepidation given the time I didn't have for such a mission. After all, steeped as I was in the role of motherhood, cook, laundress, taxi driver --in general the "fort keeper"--how would I find time for such a notion when time enough for a simple cup of tea seemed a purely wicked pleasure of stolen time? I didn't have a clue!
Yet, in time, fueled only by blind determination, I enrolled myself in an accredited correspondence course from a proven school in Connecticut, the perfect solution for me. I could take my time--no deadlines--which suited my situation perfectly. When the materials arrived I began in earnest, slogging my way through the course in about fourteen months--but with a downside. My assignments were routinely returned heavily critiqued in a less than positive way! Whole sentences were slashed, cross marks and question marks boldly displayed. If I thought I wrote well I soon learned differently.
In the end, however, they were excellent courses from which I eventually learned much, and by the end of the second course I was far more grounded on such important themes as how to market work, word count, staying on point, using proper adjectives for context created, the importance of grammar and punctuation, and much, much more--in short, all the fine points and caveats every writer must know if they're writing for more than the pure pleasure of it all. Workshops at the Y followed, adding much to my little cart of knowledge, fortified also by a Writer's Digest subcription and the venerable Writer's Market. In time I WAS published, and as any writer will attest, whether working at a kitchen table, a home office, a restaurant booth or school parking lot while waiting for the kiddies to emerge, seeing your story in print with your name below the title is akin to reaching Everest and placing that victory flag in a crevice-ridden rock at the top of the world.
It was all so worth the time, and that's my story.
CONGRATULATIONS, ROSEMARY, WE ENJOYED YOUR STORY IMMENSELY. NOW SHARE A BIT OF YOURSELF WITH OUR READERS . . .
1. What three words do you think describe you as a human being?
Other than being a hair over five feet tall, of Italian heritage and reverent about the ancestry I come from, I like to think I'm loyal, fair-minded and quite good at keeping secrets. On the other hand I'm often impatient and quite vocal when I see injustice foisted upon those who don't have the means or ability to fight against it.
2. How do you think others would describe you?
Well, hopefully, in good terms that we all know--honorable, loving and trustworthy. But, really, I don't give it much thought. At this stage of my life, what matters most to me is that those I care about, my family, love me as much as I love them. Life is so full of unpredictables that, in the end, what better riches are there?
3. Please tell us what you are most passionate about outside of writing.
Many things. I believe I am, by nature, a creative person. Several on my mother's side were as well. As a child I loved to draw. There was a period when that was all I did, and since I was an only child there were no interruptions. Later on I began to sew, especially in the early days of my marriage. It was not unusual for me to stay up late, so engrossed in a project that I paid no mind to time, even at midnight or 1:00 in the morning. I do love to read a good story as well.
4.Do you have any pets?
If so, introduce us to them. Presently, our dog Champ, a brindle boxer. We love boxers because they are family-oriented and so "smart." In that breed there was also Duke, Bud and Buster, all now running in that great green meadow, we like to think. We've also had a Heinz-57, our sweet Twerp, who gave us seventeen years of love, joy and loyalty.
5.What is your most precious memory?
In a family like ours with four children, there are too many to choose from. On a more personal level, there are two that come to mind: Walking up Dinwitty Street in Pittsburgh (where I was born)on a bitterly cold day. I was four and had lost my mittens. My dear father picked me up, held me close and wrapped his thin jacket around me all the way up the hill. It was long and steep, but we made it. Then there's that time when I was in high school. Dad and I would remain at the table after dinner and look up words in the dictionary that we didn't know the meanings of. Those tender little vignettes remain close to my heart, such remembered moments evoking profound sentiment. Needless to say, they are more than likely the underpinnings, I suppose, of how I write and what I hope to draw from my readers.
6.What is your most embarrassing memory?
Wow, I'm too embarrassed, even now, to mention them! If I had to pick just one, I'd have to say my wedding day, which my husband will never forget! He, the priest, as well as the church-filled invitees, all waited nervously thinking the worst--runaway bride--until I showed up, almost fifteen minutes late! My only excuse was that I was too nervous to track the time, and I've been teased in good fun about it often through the years!
7. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing with your life?
It's hard to answer hypothetically, but it would definitely be something in some creative art form. Very early on I wanted to be an artist, a dancer, an actor--once even a journalist since, as a teen, I formed a fan club for an upcoming singer. I did journals, added photos, and "hawked" my club on local deejay radio shows when I could. Absolute fun! What I finally did do was go clerical, finding a job one day after high school graduation with an architectural firm as secretary to a specs engineer. Over time I worked for General Motors, Russell Kelly Office Temps, and wound up as secretary to a plant manager at a salt company in Detroit.
8.Can you describe the time you realized you were indeed a “real” writer?
Well, most certainly it wasn't when I wrote my first story in high school English. It wasn't even when I put myself into creative writing classes and workshops. Though I've never thought about it in the term you stated, I suppose it was when I realized that, after taking on this beautiful, confounded craft, really getting into it, I could take a bruise! The desire to write, I believe, is a stirring in the soul that cannot be ignored. But rejection of submissions is rather commonplace. I once read they are about seventy or eighty percent, give or take, and I most certainly attest to that. At one point I'd acquired enough rejection slips to wallpaper a small bathroom! That said, when I realized I wanted to continue despite those disappointing moments at the mailbox, that I was either in or out, I considered myself a "real" writer, as you put it.
9. What is going on with your writing these days?
I have some ideas in the works, a few stories in the very early stages, a few plots clumsily planned out in my head. I try not to go intense beyond two at a time, however, because I find it can muddle the thought process and then I'm all over the place. Besides, I've often found that when I begin a story, it sometimes takes the lead, stirring me to where it wants to go. But for now, two is my limit to juggle, which also keeps me cordial to those who step into my writing zone.
10.What are your future goals for your writing?
To simply continue writing my short stories, period, veering off into non-fiction occasionally when I encounter something I want to address. I have no grand goal here because I find that to be negative energy, pulling me away from focus, the task at hand. I am a woman who simply loves to write, to bring life to a blank page in the way I know best from all I've seen and experienced through life. If someone anywhere enjoys what I have played out in a tale, that is icing on the cake, to use the dreaded cliche.
11.Can you describe a typical writing day for you?
It usually begins around noon, if possible, after morning tasks and calls are completed. When the muse is really clicking I remain at the keyboard into mid or late afternoon, considering myself lucky for that spate of time. After all, the phone is always ringing and we all know about best-laid plans...
12.Why do you write?
The simplest answer is because it brings to the forefront who I am. My personal feeling is that there is an autonomy that comes with writing, apart from the everyday we are all engaged in, and on that score we come in all varieties, from all walks of life. Yet, no matter what station in life we find ourselves in, we all have a personal voice. When I write, that is the part of me I address, and the plots, words, dialogue, bring it to the surface, which I thoroughly enjoy.
13.What writer most inspires you? Why?
There are many I've enjoyed through the years: Mary Higgins Clark for her in-depth, character-filled, finely tuned mysteries; James Michener for his glorious, sweeping sagas that span decades; John Steinbeck for his stark and eloquent portrayals of the "have-nots" among us who plodded through life on sheer guts and courage; Elmore "Dutch" Leonard for his spot-on keen, descriptives of underworld life; and, of course, the inimitable Ernest Hemingway, who wrote great American classics despite breaking, I once read, every rule in the book on what is deemed well-written literature. I could go on...
14.How do you define your writing?
What I truly enjoy creating are short stories about regular folks we all know or have encountered often. Since word count is important in such a venue, my tales must move along nicely with a clear, defining premise stated up front, and I try to spin foreshadow in appropriate places to keep the reader piqued. Also, since many of my protagonists are soul-driven, introspection is important where necessary. I also prefer redemptive endings either in defining or subliminal ways, as the story dictates. Some may find that a bit schmaltzy, but in my humble opinion I feel most readers enjoy being uplifted since we are all well aware of life's realities--the hurdles, glitches, side turns, down turns--that mere day-to-day living can foist upon us. If the story is intriguing enough, whatever the premise or ending, it will pass the test. So my goal is to simply tell a story, entertain, and hope the reader feels their time was well spent. Having said all that, this particular story you've sanctioned as Story of the Month, "The Candy Man," is my first attempt at something more literary in tone without a tangible plot to speak of, and I sincerely thank you for the honor.
15.In one sentence—what do you want people to say about your writing in fifty years?
Hopefully they will say there is something in my fiction that still resonates well, even though life may be far different than what we know today.