Monday, September 7, 2009

So Eden sank to grief

We moved to that house in the middle of my third grade year. When we first visited the house the summer before, it was a mess. The neighbor spoke about how the previous owner had stood naked on the front porch and peed into the yard. I remember picturing the man relieving himself through the faded trellis that surrounded the porch. I also remember the wallpaper in the kitchen-- white with a blue, naked woman print. There was trash everywhere, and the yard was overgrown and wild. I wondered how we were going to live there, amidst all the filth. But once my Dad had worked on it for just a few months, it was the best of homes. He was a superman with a tool belt, and I could not worship him anymore. The neighborhood also loved him for recuperating the property, and we loved the relative serenity and isolation of our home.

Even though we were in a pretty populated neighborhood, ours was the only road off the highway for miles. We were at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. The summers were mild and the winters wintry enough to please a young boy who loved snow. Just behind the house, a massive hill rose up to what seemed to me a thousand feet. It was so steep that I could not even fully climb it. All along the hill were brambly bushes, prickly berry plants and thick undergrowth.

I sometimes traded cut up legs and arms to eat a few berries.

I liked to imagine what was on top of the hill, but I never dispelled my fantasies by getting up there. A lot of my time was spent in a young maple tree that grew about ten feet up the base of the hill. It hung over the tool shed that abutted the hill. By climbing up to the top of the shed and standing on the roof, I could climb into the tree and onto a branch that hung out over the shed and yard. I was so small and the branch so shaped that it made a perfect seat for me. I sat with my back against the trunk and my legs stretched across that limb for hours a day. If I looked straight out or to the side and not down to the roof of the shed, I was up about 15 feet, on top of the world.

When I wasn't in the tree, I was biding my time until Daddy sent me and my sister to the convenience store at the intersection of our road and the highway. It was the only store for miles. It had all the basics and a deli that made killer sandwiches. Usually we were just sent to pick up some bread or milk, but occasionally it was steak sandwich night. I still remember the smell of the meat on the flattop: a warm, garlicky cloud, with that milky, fecund smell of cheese melting on the grill. We never had that much excess money, so getting these sandwiches was a treat unparalleled. As a result, when we were sent to fetch these sandwiches, we simply hurried down, ordered them, ran home and ate hearty.

However, when we were sent to pick up various sundries, occasionally my sister and I would ask if we could pick up a treat for ourselves. At that time, you could still get Bazooka Joe's for a penny, Atomic Fireballs and Jaw Breakers for two pennies, and small boxes of Lemon Heads or Red Hots for a dime. We never asked what candy we could get- only if we could get some - but we durst not ever get more than those single or small packages. The $0.30 candy bars were way out of our range, and we knew it. We never got candy, and we were used to watermelon and cantaloupe for dessert. Only this convenience store even made us bold enough to ask for candy. We were there so much, and the aisle was so alluring, that there was an unspoken agreement between father and children that if we asked rarely enough, and if we showed proper restraint, we could all be happy.

My favorite of the small wonders was the box of Alexander the Grapes. Made by Ferrara Pan, they were the grape-flavored equivalent of the more famous Lemon Heads. A crumbly, sweet purple grape casing surrounded a chewier, sour center. The combination was heavenly, and there were a good 15 or so candies, even in that small box.
Just looking at this box makes me want to cry for lost youth.

The candies now go under the name "Grape Heads," and the formulation has changed. They can never approximate the joy they brought me all those years ago. Many a day, I sat on my branch, looking out over the street to the mountains in the distance, sucking on Alexander the Grapes until I could not stand it any longer, and bit into the center. So powerful, in fact, was my experience with candy from that store that I once let greed overtake my judgment.

On one of those special days when my sister and I were sent to pick up some sandwiches, I felt I could reach up and touch the sky. I had not asked my Dad if I could get any candy, and I had no reason to-- we were getting the sandwiches, an occasion not to be taken lightly. However, as my sister went to the counter to order the sandwiches, I wandered over to the candy aisle. I poured up and down, looking at all the options, wondering what so many of them tasted like. I wanted the total package-- sandwich, family, candy. I knew my sister, who had the money, would not give me even a penny for a piece. She had been instructed to bring home the change, and we would not steal from our father. Really, I would never even have asked her to. But as an 8-yr old, the pull was too strong. I was a slave to the call of the sugar. So, thinking to myself that I could palm a small piece of candy (a box was too big and would make too much noise), I reached down and grabbed a tootsie roll. Even as I turned and reached to put it in my pocket, I saw the cashier staring at me. "Did you pay for that, honey?" she said. There was no malice on her voice; it even seemed sympathetic. She was giving me the benefit of the doubt. How many times had I been in there, after all?

I Imagine me on the left side of this aisle, attempting to will the candy deftly into my pocket.

But I could not be concerned with her tone. My ears were burning, my father's disappointment was on me, and I felt the shame of a thousand criminals. I threw the candy back, ran over to my sister at the counter, and begged her to go. We did not have the sandwiches yet, and I tried to hide behind her until they came out. When they did, I let her go to the counter as I shrank by the front door. The cashier never said a word to my sister, and nothing ever came of that incident, but it must have been months before I would go back to that store. Ironically, the attempt to grab one morsel of candy probably stopped me from getting twenty times as much over the next few months.

A couple years after the incident, we moved away from that house, and I haven't been back since. Still, despite my shame, I have never really felt as comfortable as I did in our small little house, at the bottom of the hill, with a store full of candies and sandwiches at the end of the road.

1 comment:

  1. I, for one, am appalled. Shame I say....shame.

    Best story yet. Keep em coming! I love reading this