The Candy Man’s Last Day

I wrote this piece seven years ago.  I witnessed something profound and I felt the need to record it.  Although, I learned later that the Candy Man made a recovery, I don’t believe it was expected.  I wrote this without the knowledge of his future recovery, and this moment is no less poignant to me.  Maurice and Gyan are both alive, well, and retired.

Once every couple of months, my daughter would accumulate enough cash to contribute to the latest cuddly collectibles craze:  Webkins.   On that Saturday, she combined her allowance from the previous two weeks and the five dollars I paid her to help me clean up the mess on the side of the house.  I’m generally pretty cheap on paying for extra help from my children, but this was a particularly disgusting mess of rotting cardboard boxes, old garbage, and junk.   She sifted through snails, bugs, and general rottenness with me, and I did not hesitate to fork up five one dollar bills from my wallet.   On top of that, I promised to treat her to some homemade onion burgers, french fries, and a fresh blueberry smoothy.  My son pitched in for the last thirty minutes, hoping to score the yummy treat as well.  He was pleased to receive a dollar and to get the chance to flip his own burger.

After getting cleaned up a bit, my daughter began her campaign for me to take her to the Candy Basket (local proprietor of candies and collectibles).   I did not make her beg.  I was happy to reward her with a trip to the candy shop.   My son joined us, as usual, with far less cash at his disposal, but content to buy just a little bit of candy.   I was pleased to go as well.  The Candy Basket was a special place.  It was hard to pin down exactly what made it special, but it was plain to see that it was special.  I suspect it had something to do with the people who worked the counter.

We’d been visiting the Candy Basket for less than a year.   We’d taken only three or four trips, but the people I’d met there had made a strong impression on me.   There were always three:  two teenage girls and an older woman.   The two teenagers were very cute and engaging.  They chatted and giggled with each other as they went about the business of restocking this and ringing up that.  They were both also very personable with me.  I was never quite sure if it was the same two girls every time, but their pleasing personalities were consistent.

On this trip, I recalled that one had an open smile with blond hair and the other was demure with freckles.  The older woman…I say older, but her age was difficult to guess, was pleasantly plump with sparkly eyes, well-composed demeanor, died red hair with a streak of white, and a charming smile.  I learned later that her name is Gyan.  She addressed my children directly and warmly; rather than through me, as many adults do.  She moved through the store with care and a sharp eye.  She handled her wares gently as if each were a family heirloom.   She complimented the girls on their work on a new arrangement or display.  She discussed a new product with them.  She tended to her customers as if they were family.  Her enthusiasm for the shop was contagious.  The whole place sparkled with her care and pride.

Today’s visit began just as all of our visits began.  We were greeted warmly by the older woman.  She immediately intuited my daughter’s desire to browse the Webkins and pointed her toward the display while my son began browsing the candy.   But this time, she stepped out of the shop for a few minutes leaving the two teenagers at the counter.  When she returned, there was a change in her.  It was subtle and it’s meaning was not yet known to me.  She gathered the girls in a huddle and spoke with a kind of forced calm.

“Girls, Maurice, is on his way.”

There was some talk about how to act when he arrived.  The girls were not to react negatively.  They were to smile.  This caught my attention.   Something was about to happen here.  But what?  Who was this man that would arrive shortly?  My first thought was that he must be some difficult but important customer.   But what could a man do to become a difficult but important customer at a candy shop?

With urgency in her voice, she dispatched each of the girls to run a quick errand.  Then she turned to me.

“I’m very sorry.  I was distracted.”  Her smile was somewhat wooden now and her eyes were slightly glazed.

She turned and looked expectantly out of the window, and then back to me.

“I’m very sorry.  I was distracted, ” she repeated, with the same wooden smile.

She then erected herself behind the counter and continued to gaze out of the window.  He had arrived.  Meanwhile, my son was ready to make his purchase.  He had picked out some kind of long chewy rope of candy and was waiting quietly at the counter.   Her eyes were on a man being helped out of a car and placed in front of a walker.

I prompted her politely, “Ma’am?”

She glanced absently at my son and then returned her gaze to the man slowly approaching the door.  She placed her hand on one of the large roped lolly pops.

“Yes, these roped ones are very popular.”  Her voice was distant, and my son was confused.    She picked one out and said, “Would you like me to do a price check on this one?”

My son spoke timidly, “No.  I wanted one of these.”  He held out his candy for her to see.

“Oh yes.  Will that be all?”

Something was happening.  My son did not ask about the lolly pop at all.  Her mind was somewhere else.

He nodded and she rang him up.  As usual, she took a moment to carefully explain the change she was making for him.  For a moment, her attention to my son came back into focus.  She had always been very careful with my children’s money.  She wanted them to know exactly what she was doing with it.  That day, she added a penny from her penny dish so that she could return an even 20 cents.

During the transaction, the girls must have returned because they had gathered behind the counter with the older woman.   They were all smiling and watching the door.  I turned to watch as well.  The old man and the people that were assisting him were shuffling very slowly through the door.  I didn’t know exactly how many people there were.   Perhaps three?  Maybe four?  My eyes were on the old man.   Suddenly, the store seemed full of people, and all of them were focused on the old man.  The mood was transformed.  This was an auspicious occasion, like a graduation, a wedding, a birthday…a retirement?

“Well look who’s here.  It’s the Candy Man,”  she said in welcome.

Then he began what appeared to be an inspection of sorts.  The woman came from behind the counter and directed his attention to the chocolate counter.

“See?  See how we’ve done it just the way we talked about doing it?”

“Very good, very good,”  he consented.

Apparently satisfied, he shuffled back to the front counter.  He must have communicated something to the young man who was with him, because the young man now spoke to the woman on the old man’s behalf.

“He wants to go now.”

“Okay, ” she said, perhaps a little crest-fallen, perhaps a little relieved.  She chuckled and smiled.  “I guess he really did just want to say hello.  And he has done that.”

She followed the procession out the front door.  The visit had been no more than two or three minutes.

The freckle-faced girl rang up my daughter’s new Webkins:  a Siberian Husky which had already been named Antonio after her new favorite composer,  Antonio Vivaldi.   But what had just happened?  This was not a customer.  This was something else entirely.  I decided to ask about what had just occurred.

“This was kind of a big deal wasn’t it?” I intimated.

The girls looked at each other and nodded their agreement.  One of them (I don’t remember which) said, “This was a very big deal.”

I moved in closer to listen to her.

“This will probably be his last day.   He hasn’t come into work for months.   He’s been in the hospital all summer…the ICU for a month.   We hardly even recognized him.  He looks so different.”

As instructed, they were still holding their smiles, but it seemed as if they were both experiencing a little bit of a shock.

“He’s the owner?” I asked.

“They both are.  Together.”

We all turn to see the older woman standing out on the sidewalk holding the door open.   She was watching her husband walk away from what was believed to be his last day at the Candy Basket.  Even as he was driven away, she stood and watched.

Later that night, as I laid my head down on my pillow and looked at my pretty, young wife lying next to me, I  quietly grieved at the thought that I could see her last days and she could see mine.

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