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Through the Candyman’s Yellow Smile

by Eric True 4 days ago in grief
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Love, Cigarettes, and Sinatra

Through the Candyman’s Yellow Smile
Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

“Just push it a little further,” my grandfather tells me, “Until the shift reaches the letter D.”

“Ok,” I tell him, my little awkward fingers wrapped around the contours of the car’s automatic stick shift, its cracked and dried leather scratching and clawing the smooth grooves in my fingers.

The stick slides into position, and the old, battered car rattles forward, groaning as it weaves its way through the mid-evening Kansas streets. The wind whistles its hollow tunes through the loose windows that can’t quite bring themselves to shut, gently brushing the wadded-up papers across the cracked dash like tumbleweeds in the desert. Sinatra’s baritone blues rattle through the worn speakers, dancing and soothing the insides of our ears with its majesty. The gold and crimson rays of a Midwest sunset shimmer and gleam in the rearview mirrors, blinding us to the empty road that stretches on for miles behind us.

But who needs to look back anyway?

We pull off the main road, the long-since weathered tires squeaking as we turn the corner into the little gas station tucked away on the edge of town between a thick blanket of trees. The same milk-chocolate brown 60’s Camaro parked out front, crooked within its dull yellow lines. The car doors slam behind us, and our ritual begins. My grandfather looks at me through those coke bottle glasses as his welcoming smile stretches across his nimble face, his silver and yellow teeth gleaming at me between chapped lips, a fresh cigarette reaching out of the corner of his mouth.

“We meet at the counter in five, Cadet,” his raspy voice rattles, “Grab what you can. But don’t grab too much. Your ol’ Papa doesn’t have a lot right now.”

“Aye, aye, Cap’n,” I comply, though I know he’d never tell me when exactly “too much” is.

The shelves in the store seemed like they stretched on for miles in every direction, but then again, doesn’t everything in Kansas? Shelves of rainbow-colored candy reach out for me in every direction, and I’m all too eager to heed their calls. The blue candies call to me first, because when I don’t know what flavor to get, I always get blue first (that’s just common sense,right?) I make sure to finish off my haul by grabbing a pack of regular M&M’s, my grandfather’s favorite. We meet back at the counter, and the owner behind the counter greets my grandfather and me with a friendly grin.

“Hey ol' timer,” he says to my grandfather, “Guess the Candyman just couldn’t stay away.”

“Look who’s talkin’” my grandfather responds through a soft chuckle “Still keepin’ this dump up and runnin.’”

The owner laughs, “Startin’ to sound like my wife, John.”

My grandfather slides a crumpled and crusted twenty across the dusty counter, and our nightly loot is secured. We walk out to the car, our stashes held in both arms and dumped into the ripped backseat.

The road home stretches on for miles, vanishing into the horizon just out of my sight from my angle beneath the tattered dashboard. The old Ford engine whistles and whines to the chimes of summer locusts, the musty smell of old unkempt leather making me feel like I’m breathing through a straw.

I look up at my grandfather, his stern brow fixed forward, an unlit cigarette sticking from his mouth, “How long will it be until we get back?” I ask him.

“Long enough,” he replies with a smirk, “Feel free to dig in if you want.”

“No,” I tell him, “I only wanna start if you can eat too.”

His rough callused hand gently weaves through my bright blonde hair, like warm sandpaper brushing against my scalp, “You got those M&M’s?”

I dig through the mound covering my legs, “Right here.”

He smiles at me there, his face glowing a brilliant orange through the cigarette’s embers, a warmth passing through me that I know, even then, I’ll never feel again. One of those moments that feels important and irreplaceable, because even then at the age of six, I knew what that looked like, what that felt like.

Chocolate lips and childish giggles flood the night, flowing out through the cracked leather seats, smothering its musty smells, seeping into the once cool night air as it flows down the empty cracked road behind us, filling in its imperfections. It flows through the trees that shift and shamble at our passing on either side of the road, it dampens the chants of the locust and the crickets, flooding the horizon as it drowns the world in the warmth of love, cigarettes, and Sinatra.

The sugar high lasts all night.

*****

I remember the call that told me my grandfather was gone. It was a Friday afternoon in the spring of my sophomore year of high school, and I had skipped class by faking illness. That was the year the bullying got really bad, so I faked illness regularly.

I was in bed at the time I believe, doing something that would soon be drowned in irrelevancy. My dad enters the room, and dad being dad, he pulls no punches.

"Your Grandpa Harper passed away this morning at 8:30," he says in his flat bass voice. He pauses for a second, recognizing that this moment carries a gravity of importance he couldn’t fully have prepared for, “I’m sorry.”

It was one of those monumental losses I couldn’t even fathom in the moment, it just hung there all loose and raw in my mind, oozing over my thoughts, dripping from my mind down into my heart, each drop aching my soul. I thought I had prepared for this. At less than ninety pounds and with the COPD as bad as it was, I knew he wouldn't be around much longer. But I held on to a glimmer of false hope that somehow, he would pull through because I'd never had to reconcile with death before, I never had to consider the finality of it because it had never before touched someone as close to me as he. It seemed this far-off concept I could push further and further away if I didn't give it a presence in my thoughts. But just because you choose to ignore it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And in that moment, that fragment of time that broke away, the world melted out my thoughts and the soft covers of my bed, and I cried into my pillow thinking about his lovely yellow smile. I would have done anything in that moment to escape myself into his presence, but the only thing I could do was turn on Sinatra and hope that he could hear it somewhere, somehow, and hope that he would come back to me in my dreams.

*****

It’s a Saturday morning in Eureka, the sun reaches through my basement window with its limbs of light, highlighting my sand-colored carpet in shimmering tones of golden warmth. The fall trees outside sway with their red and orange coats that match the colors of sunsets. The baby birds chirp from their little nest tucked under the wood panels of my deck.

Sometimes the most beautiful things are also the most vulnerable, and impermanent. The leaves that fall come winter; the birds that fall from their nest come adolescence. The babies in that nest, their mouths agape and their cries falling into the morning wind, I wonder how it would be if the mother suddenly never returned. Would all the memories of love, warmth, and feeding all just fall into the wind too? And the even more daunting question, are they better off there? Then maybe the hurt wouldn’t be quite so unbearable.

But then I look at the cloudless blue sky and I think of home, of Kansas. I see a baby deer sitting in the backyard next to the rotted wooden playground I have long since outgrown. My mind fixed on the image of this deer under a blue sky, and all of my thoughts escape me. Grandpa always loved baby deer, I think to myself. I should call him and tell him one is in the backyard.

The phone rings and rings, cold and distant. He’s probably watching Carson. I’ll call later.

*****

After his passing, my thoughts would often crawl back to those memories of the car rides to the gas station. Because as selfish as it may sound, I not only mourned the loss of my grandfather but the loss of the pieces of myself that went with him. Still grappling with the fact that he was truly gone.

In the early stages of grief, you want something you can blame. You want a face, a cause, something you can hate for what it took from you. You want to fill the hole left in your heart and mind with rage. But that rage becomes a mask, a veil you put over yourself to hide the broken parts you don’t want the world to see.

For a while, I was even angry at my grandfather. Was his love for me somehow less than his love for the things that hurt him? If he knew the pack of cigarettes a day were breaking him, were killing him, why wouldn’t he leave it behind? Was he punishing himself? Why would he hate himself enough to think he needs punishment? Through asking these questions, I couldn’t see that I was only punishing myself.

Eventually, my circle of blame came back around to me.

*****

It was around middle school where the rift began to open between my grandfather and me, a sucking wound that slowly steals all the air from your lungs.

It was at this time that my issues with identity became most apparent because I drew away from him like I drew away from everything I loved. I wanted to be something other than myself. I didn’t want to be the outcast any longer, the one everyone either ignores or bullies into submission. Growing up, all I wanted was the acceptance of others, and acceptance was all I strove for, even if it cost me the parts of myself I held most dear. I associated my memories with him, memories of candy parties and comic book reading, as something of a childhood fantasy, a youthful trapping I was better off without. Cast it away, I had told myself. I strove for popularity not knowing that it wouldn’t present me any measure of lasting happiness. But no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many personas I took on, no matter how many false faces I wore and lies I told myself, I still failed.

I believed my life was a poison.

In those years, trips to Kansas were no longer spent driving to the gas station, no longer spent at that grimy black coffee table smothered in grease stains and candy wrappers. I favored solitude now over the comforts of companionship. I told myself that this was what I deserved fornot being enough. I felt like I was caught on a tightrope, and it was my own fault for getting there in the first place.

He would knock on my door, his lanky battered body squeezing past the doorway. He would ask me if I wanted to come with him to the gas station. I would always tell him I’m busy, that I had a lot of homework or I was talking with a friend. It would always be a lie. And he would slink back into the hall, the door squealing in protest until it locks into the wall. I could tell he missed the days when I was a boy, barely as tall as his 5 "5" waist. He missed the boy who sat next to him on the couch and giggled with him while watching the shows nobody else in the family laughed at. He missed the boy who always made sure to pick his favorite candy at the gas station. Deep down, I missed that boy too, even if I wouldn’t admit it.

By the end, we were little more than two people connected by a loose thread, the memories of good times past hanging between us like loose ornaments.

After my anger with him faded, I shifted the blame onto myself. Maybe if I had never pulled away, he would have been more motivated to quit. Maybe if I hadn’t given up on him like I had given up on myself, then he could have fought just that little bit harder. If I was a better grandson, I would have tried to pull him away from it sooner.

I fell into the rabbit hole of “ifs” and “maybes” and not one of them provided me with any measure of comfort. They only made the hurt worse, compounding and trapping me in a bubble of guilt and self-loathing.

To this day I don’t know whether I have fully escaped these feelings or not. For the most part, I accept his loss as something I never could have prevented, but I have my days where drowned thoughts bob to the surface. I was a child lost in his own grief. He could blame the cigarettes or the cancer or his grandpa or himself but blaming something doesn't take away the pain. Eventually, I let myself feel the loss in a way I hadn't before, by letting myself feel the impact and acknowledging just what I had lost.

*****

I closed myself off from my own world. My phone, my gateway to the world, had been shut off

for over two weeks. It was spring break of my Junior year. The spring was when my family typically left St. Louis for the five-hour trek to Topeka, though this year, I did not want to go. It was not up to me, however. After five of the longest hours of my life, we found ourselves at the familiar doorstep of my grandparents. I walk in, expecting to see him sitting there on the same couch he always had, an ashtray and a pack of M&M’s on his dusty coffee table. But the empty space he used to occupy was all there was. This hole sucked in all meaning of this once joyful place. What was this house without him but a reminder of his absence?

I spent the night crying in my room over all the things I left unsaid, over the goodbyes I never got to tell. Sometimes, I’d dream that I had the chance, that I got to say everything I had and would ever want to. But my dreams lie in an attempt to extinguish my regrets. And in the end that only hurt more. Who am I without my grandfather? It took me a long time to discern the truth of that question.

*****

I don't think acceptance is as straightforward as it sounds. Acceptance doesn't mean the emptiness is gone. It doesn't mean the loss no longer hurts. Acceptance just means you know where you are now, you’ve learned to step over that hole. You know now that the world works beyond your control, and you have to accept that there are some things you can never prevent. Throwing blame around doesn’t resolve your feelings, and neither does pretending that those feelings are not there.

*****

In the summertime, I often drive down to Kansas all on my own, driving down the same road I had so many years before when I was the little overly eager boy who switched the shifts in my grandfather’s clunker of a Ford, looking over the dashboard as if the secret to living my whole life in a sugar high would be right there in front of me. The cracked gravel road remains the same as it ever has, the trees still swaying and dancing at my passing. The way some things never change is comforting to me now. I pull into the same small, tucked away gas station, that chocolate brown 60’s Camaro parked out front perhaps a bit dirtier than before, but still crooked between the lines that are no longer there.

The door creaks open, and the old cashier behind the counter greets me with a tender smile.

“My my, look who sauntered in my door this late in the evening,” he says as he firmly shakes my hand, “Good to see ya kid!”

I buy from here the same thing that I buy every time, sliding it across the counter with the accompanying five-dollar bill. He asks about college, and I tell him the things he wants to hear. That I’m doing good. That I’m keeping up with my studies. As I’m walking out of the door, he stops me.

“Kid,” he says, trying to find the right words, “I know he’d be proud of you. He always was. The Candyman never stopped talking about you. Even at the end.”

I thank him, telling him that I know. I don’t think I was lying when I told him that, but sometimes I do have my doubts. I drive through town, passing the family diner everyone in town goes to after church on Sundays, passing schools and stores, the libraries and the post offices, all the places that had always been here.

It took me a long time to realize that just because he was gone didn’t mean the memories no longer mattered. Those moments we shared, both big and small, guided me and protected me in ways I know I will never fully comprehend. Do I look back and regret the distance between us in the end? Certainly. But you learn from the mistakes you make, both big and small, because when faced with something as menacing and unpredictable as death, all you can do is learn to control what you can, and acknowledge that life moves on regardless, even if at times it does not feel like it.

The breeze whips my hair across my face as I stand at his gravestone. When I close my eyes, I see his smile looking at me. I smile too, not knowing whether it's love or pain I feel. Often though, they can mean the same thing.

“Hi Grandpa,” I tell him, “I know it’s been a while. But I wanted you to know that I was thinking about you. That I still do all these years later.” I laugh a little to myself. “You're a little late to the candy party, but don't worry, I remembered your favorite, just like I always did.” I set the pack of M&Ms on the patch of freshly mowed grass in front of his stone. For the next hour or two, I tell him everything that had happened since the last time I visited. And once the sun begins to set, I tell him that I love him, and I begin my long drive back down that road, feeling as though some part of him is there with me, chocolate covering his lips and the cigarette jetting out the corner of his mouth, The Candyman’s yellow smile looking at me as though I were still a child, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I open my own pack of M&M’s and pop them in one at a time as the orange and red sunset fades on the horizon, tucked into slumber by a tapestry of nighttime stars.

The sugar high lasts all night.

grief

About the author

Eric True

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  3. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  1. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

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Comments (3)

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  • Abigail Penhallegon4 days ago

    This is beautiful. The M+M’s as a connecting theme give it the brightness it needs to balance out the darkness, the sweet to go with the bitter.

  • Laura Magee4 days ago

    Such a heartwarming, bittersweet story! It reminds me of my grandma and I. Toward the end of her life, I wasn't there as much as I wanted to be. It was also painful for me to see her deteriorate and there was a part of me that didn't want to go see her. I wanted to remember the vibrant, creative grandma that taught me how to paint. I miss her now that she is gone and regret not spending more time with her while I could. Great story!

  • Gotta say this story hit me right in the heart. It reminded me of my father and what i went through when he past. Very tounching and very sincre. Im sure your grandfather loved it too. Great job.

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