Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

Church Candy

 

“Got yourself a temper like your daddy, I see. I see.”

I was teasing my baby sister, holding her up to the ornaments on our Christmas tree so she was close enough to grab one, and then when she reached out her tiny fingers, I’d pull her away so she never got to even touch it.

Mother heard her whimpering. “Stop that!” she called from the kitchen. That’s mean, and it’s dangerous! She’ll be too fast for you one time and get ahold of an ornament and break it, maybe cut herself.”

“They aren’t even glass ornaments I’m aiming her at,” I called back.

My baby sister’s reactions were fascinating, the way she’d pucker up and stiffen when I’d pull her away, and then when I’d moved her close again how she’d flail her arms and legs and try once more. Even though it made you laugh, you had to feel sorry for her; she was like a rube at the county fair when it hasn’t dawned on him yet that the game he’s playing is rigged.

It made me sad to think she would learn to dissemble and deceive like everyone else in order to get on in the world. Well, not everyone, not Sam, our neighbor who farmed the gladiola fields next to our hay. I was getting old enough to realize that there was something wrong with him. He stuttered and stammered, and though he seemed to want to say important things, he never could quite get them out to make sense. Even nice people, like the preacher, lost patience and were mean to him.

Just to make up for their meanness, the men who played poker invited him to join them one night. They said when the dealer hit him with a card he liked, he’d grin. If it was a bad one, he’d swear. At first the men laughed and took his money, but after a while they grew ashamed, and the night was ruined.

 Sometimes he’d ask one or another of them if they were still having games and would they invite him again. “Sure, sure, old pal,” they’d say, but they never did.

Even my sobering thoughts about Sam couldn’t put a dent in my good mood. I wasn’t even complaining like I usually did when I had to entertain my sister because that morning, spying from my usual place behind the tan plastic couch, I heard my mother say to Grandma on the phone that the preacher was going to give us children each our own bag of candy at the Sunday morning service which this year just happened to fall on Christmas Day.

My own bag! Just the thought of it made me giddy. I’d been eyeing the Christmas candy with its snowflakes and stripes whenever Mother grew weary of my begging and let me ride along to the country store with her.  Jon, the storekeeper, kept it up by the cash register in large glass jars. He had a metal scoop he used to put it in paper bags to weigh it for the kids lucky enough to have parents who’d buy it. Now some of it would be mine.

“I’m going to ask Sam to divvy up the candy in bags for the children,” the preacher announced. Most of the congregation jumped at the idea;  a way to ease their guilt for being mean to him all year, completely forgetting the reasons why they were mean. The ones who remembered, bit their lower lip in silence. My grandma who lived across the road from us, was one of those. She knew Sam as well as anybody because every Sunday morning he drove her down our dirt road to country church in his dusty old car, his wads of gum saved on the dashboard, talking non-stop. My brother Dean, who was a year older than I was, and I often rode with them.

So the preacher gave somebody in the congregation some money, and whoever it was  bought Jon’s candy and dropped it off at Sam’s house for him to bag up for the kids.

Church wasn’t really that much fun; Dean especially hated it, but at least it got us out of the house and Mother’s infernal jobs lists. “Change out of your school clothes and get to work,” she’d say, the minute the school bus dropped us off afternoons, handing us a list of the things we had to get done. In summer she’d wake us up with a list in her hand of the work we had to do. Dean and I would eat toast and drink a glass of milk and argue while we took turns picking jobs.  If she heard us bickering, Mother would add more jobs to the list. Dean took advantage of this, and I got stuck with the ones neither of us wanted: doing the breakfast dishes, sorting socks, giving the baby a bath. Dean got to take the mending to Grandma’s where he always got a cookie, and feed the barn kittens whose mother had been shot, likely by our father. We each had to swat 50 flies that always seemed to find their way into the house. Sometimes Dean opened the screen door to let in more flies to make the swatting easier.

I’d do my work as fast as I could, and then head for Sam’s creek. I loved catching minnows in a strainer I was careful not to let mother know I borrowed from the kitchen. Sometimes I’d pick wild flowers beside the stream, but even more wonderful, Sam never complained when I gathered a bouquet of gladiolas to take home. Our dog Susie came with me. One day she chased a pheasant into a piece of old fencing. At first I laughed “Get it, Susie!  Get it,” never dreaming she actually could. Then I screamed, “Stop, Susie,” when I realized the pheasant was trapped.  She ignored me and either broke its neck or scared it to death.

Earlier I’d heard Sam outside the barn swearing at his mule who apparently didn’t want to work that morning; I ran up the driveway, carrying the pheasant.

“Don’t let it die,” I blubbered.

 “It’s already dead,” Sam said.

“Lazarus came back from the dead.” Sam had to be good for something.

“You can put it in the corn crib,” he stammered. His mule stomped its feet telling us he’d had a change of heart and was impatient to get to work.

I carried the pheasant to the corn crib and gently laid it inside. Sam shrugged, and I knew I would never ask him if it came back to life.

The morning we found out we were getting candy, both Dean and I decided we loved church after all. But that changed when our father came storming into the house which surprised us no end because it was way too early for dinner. A heavy snowfall had settled early on the valley, and his boots left a trail of dirt and snow, but the work he made for us meant nothing to him. Men made messes; women cleaned them up. That’s how it was, and that’s how God, if there was a God, intended it to be.

 He was an unhappy man, and seemed hell-bent on making us unhappy too. Even on his best days his presence made everyone tense. Dean and I would run and hide when we heard his truck laboring up the driveway. When he screamed at the top of his lungs at mother, the pain inside him was so visible my heart ached for both of them.

I quit playing Touch the Ornament, but I was standing too close to the tree, and the baby kicked a glass bird which fell to the floor, breaking into pieces. Mother called out, “Oh see what you’ve done!” and dropped the peeling knife. The baby began to cry.

Father dismissed the ornament as if it were nothing. “That God-damned Sam Forbes,” he said.

I jiggled the baby so she would stop crying. Now that I was beginning to understand that Sam was different, he had become interesting to me.

Mother got herself together. “That Sam! You can always count on him to mess things up! What did he do this time?”

“What did he do!” Hell! I went up there to see about borrowing his damned cross saw.  I could see him through the kitchen window. He was sitting at the table, putting the damned church candy into the kids’ bags, and he was licking the pieces as he dropped them in.”

Mother dried her hands on her apron and wiped her bangs, all the rage since Mamie Eisenhower’s appearance with them on the cover of the latest house-keeping magazine, and women realized anyone could look in the mirror and cut their own for free. “Should we call the preacher?” she asked.

“Hell no. Will you never learn to mind your own damned business! If the neighbors want their kids to eat it that’s not your affair, but I can tell you, I’d better not catch a kid of mine eating it!”

Maybe he thought if we ate Sam’s spit we’d catch whatever it was that made him so foolish, in which case it apparently was okay with him if the neighbor kids ended up like Sam.

My heart was sinking fast.  “We could rinse it off.”

“You aren’t part of this,” Mother said.

But I was. The candy was supposed to be for us. “Listen to her! She said she’d  rinse it off!” Dean said.

“You won’t rinse it off, and you’ll be quiet.” I suspected Mother would call the other mothers later to warn them, but not in front of our father.

“You’ll go to church. You’ll get your candy, and you’ll say thank you. You will hand the candy to me, and when we get home we’ll throw it in the garbage. End of discussion,” she said.

Christmas morning we drank hot chocolate and ate homemade cinnamon rolls. There was a perfect orange in my stocking, two pairs of new silky underwear the catalog was now showing which I didn’t even want, and new crayons for school. Maybe they came from Santa, maybe not. Mother drove us to church which was highly unusual, and it made the morning even more special.

The sanctuary was cold and poorly lit as it always was in winter.  The man who lived in the farm house closest to the church, would dutifully plod over on Sunday mornings about 5:30 and turn the heat up enough to make the temperature tolerable, but only if we left our coats on. He was not a member of our church, so either he did this out of pure kindness, or we paid him.

The preacher stepped into the pulpit, rubbing his hands together, perhaps to friction up some enthusiasm; or maybe it was just that his hands were cold. After our service he had a sermon to deliver at our sister church in town, and he used us at nine to hone his elocution for them at 11. We sang a Christmas hymn together, someone read the story of Jesus’ birth from the Bible. Then the two Lake sisters, Vicky and Lynn, sang Silent Night, after which the congregation applauded. They sang every week and I, for one, was somewhat jealous of the attention they got from the grown-ups, though I was far too shy to sing myself. The Lake girls seldom stayed for the sermon, and they never played chase with us in the basement.

The preacher prayed for everyone who wasn’t there that Christmas morning, especially Gordon Oxley who was in Dean’s grade, asking God to help him get an artificial leg which some of the men in the church drove from farm house to farm house collecting money for. They asked our father for $25, but he said, “Hell, I’ll give them $50,” and he wrote out a check. Gordon lost the real one that fall in his father’s corn picker.

The preacher called the children to come forward. The mothers made us girls unzip our coats so the catalog dresses they had skimped on groceries to buy for us would show.

I hesitated, but Mother gave me a push and told me for heaven’s sake to stop being a drip and get up there.

Snow pants swishing, we made our way forward. There were only three or four of us most Sunday mornings, but I counted eleven kids in the front row. The Jamisons were there, all four of them. It wasn’t fair because they never came to church except on Christmas and we went nearly every week and sat through the sermons. “They are getting candy that should be ours,” Dean whispered. I was glad though. Janiece was a second-grader like I was, and she told me since their father left, their mother had no money to buy them anything for Christmas.

The minister was supposed to preach to the children, but he kept glancing over our heads at the grown-ups.  I could hear their snickers behind me so I knew he was making fun of us. I was familiar with how that went because Dean made fun of me non-stop. I didn’t like it, but it didn’t really matter. I was at an age where I often mixed up Jesus and Santa, and doubts about them both were seeping into my thoughts, and what I really wanted was to go back to my seat. The preacher must have read my mind because he said, “I know you would like me to stop talking and give you the bag of candy Sam has so generously put together for you.” Sam grinned and  the congregation clapped for him which they had no right to do. They weren’t the ones who would have to give their candy to their mother, and watch her throw it away. I did say thank you because Mother made me promise I would, but I didn’t smile, and the preacher gave me a second glance. I looked at Dean for some commiseration, but he was bending over, fussing with his boots. I supposed his legs itched because boots are scratchy, but still it seemed to me like a strange thing to be doing at just that time.

The preacher then announced that one-legged Gordon would get a bag of candy hand-delivered to his house by him personally on his way to town church, and then dismissed us. As I walked back to mother’s pew, I saw that the adults were smiling, happy for us that we were getting candy. I knew it was mean to not smile back, but I didn’t care. I stared fixedly at the numbers on the attendance chart on the back wall. There were twenty-three people in attendance last Sunday, and thirty-one this morning. I wondered if the number included our baby sister who mother was holding.

“Here, let me take your candy for you,” Mother said, grabbing my bag, and then Dean’s. She was smiling, putting on a show for the neighbors.

At the end there were hugs and shouts of good will as we walked out into the cold morning. I sat freezing in the car, hating the church and Christmas.

In the car Mother questioned Dean, “Why does Hattie’s have more candy than yours?”

“Maybe Sam’s too dumb to count,” he said, shrugging. Mother frowned and made him turn right and left while she checked his pockets.

When we got home I walked upstairs and plopped down on my bed still wearing my coat and snow pants.  I tried to concentrate on the things I had to look forward to: dinner at Grandma’s, Uncle Ted with a pack of Juicy Fruit gum for each of us.

 I must have fallen asleep. The next thing I remember, Dean was standing over me, shaking my shoulders.

“Look what I got,” he said, opening his hand. It was full of candy.

 “Hey! That’s church candy! Where’d you get it?” I was still half asleep.

“From church.”

 “How’d you do that?” Sometimes I admired him so much.

 “I stuffed it inside my socks while we were up at the altar. I’ve got more.”

“What about Sam’s spit?”

“I rinsed it off.”

He gave me the entire handful which was much more generous than I ever would have expected of him.

“You have to do my jobs for a week,” he said.

I put a green-striped candy in my mouth.

“Ha-ha, I didn’t really rinse it off. You ate Sam’s spit.” He pointed a finger at me.

“I don’t think so. The one I ate was dry.  If he licked it, it’d have been sticky. I did taste your smelly socks though, so I don’t have to do your jobs.” I hit him hard on his arm.

 He grabbed for the candy, but I was ready for him. He was bigger and stronger, but I was fast. We rolled around on the bed, screaming like two fiends.

My mother burst into the room. “What’s going on in here? Stop it!” She grabbed Dean and shoved him toward the door. “Shame on you, fighting with your sister, and it’s Christmas. Come down stairs both of you. It’s time to get things ready to go to Grandma’s.”

I hid the candy in the toes of my school shoes, thinking later when we got back, I would rinse it off, but I never did. I ate it just one dry piece at a time, and it lasted for nearly a week.

 

 

 

Patricia S. Temple is a retired bilingual classroom teacher. She has published stories in Fugue, the Heartlands Today, The Portland Review, the Acorn, Wisconsin Review, Whiskey Island Review, Deep South Magazine and bilingual journals.