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Breaking Ground 95 - Penny Candy

I hear the whirring of the window fan as it draws hot air out of the kitchen and pushes a warm breeze through the open living room window. The flimsy curtains lift lightly and wave at me with the mixed fragrance of cookies in the oven, roses in full bloom, and just a hint of rotting apples. I am sitting on the cool linoleum rug, faded blue roses with ridges worn white defining every floorboard. My bare legs keep sticking to the floor as I position myself in front of the brown paper bag with the top rolled down to the bulging bounty at the bottom.

Grandaddy has brought us treasure from Click’s store on this hot summer Saturday. All the kids, but me, have to go outside. Grandaddy chose me again to do the dividing. I get to do it by myself with nobody watching. Not just because I’m the oldest, but because I’m good at arithmetic, too. The other kids think it’s because I’m a smarty-pants, and they think I won’t be fair. I uncurl the top of the bag and dump the candy out in front of me.
The familiar sight of Safe-T-Pops, Kraft caramels, peppermint sticks, Double Bubble, peanut butter logs, Kits, and Beich’s banana caramels tumble onto the floor. When I see the banana “kisses” my mouth begins to water, and I can almost taste the soft and oily banana taffy. It is my favorite of all the penny candy that we get at Click’s store.

I fan the candy out with my palms and delight in the abundance. I turn toward the kitchen where Mamaw is rolling out more cookie dough and ask her, “how many of us?” “Just you, your brothers, and Floyd’s girls. Except for Cindy,” she replies. “Bertha kept her home today.” Six of us, I think. I need to make six piles. As I turn back to the candy, my wilted pony tail gets caught between my collar and my damp neck. I flick it back out again. I push my raggedy bangs out of my eyes and approach my task with all due seriousness. I have to make six even piles of candy. There are more peppermint sticks than anything else, so I divide those first. Two apiece. They must have cost a nickel for a dozen. There’s a piece of bubble gum for everyone and three caramels. Two of the caramels are fudgies, a dark chocolate version of the chewy cubes. I have to decide who should get the fudgies. What would be fair? Finally, I think that since there are only two boys, and only two fudgies, the boys should get them.

Next, I line up the jewel-toned suckers. I know that Patsy has to have the red one, even though her real favorite color is yellow. I pick up a lemon sucker threading my finger through the soft looped handle and hold it to my eye like a monocle. The whole room looks like sunshine. I try the green one next, but the color is too dense and all I can see is the outline of the window. I pick up the orange sucker and notice that half of it is crushed inside the cellophane wrapper. I sigh and put it on my pile. There are eight packs of Kits, four candies in each pack. I give one pack to each of us, then unwrap the other two. I put one of the small candies on each pile, then set aside the two extra pieces. None of us especially like Kits, but four pieces of candy for a penny make a great bargain.

When I get down to nothing but the banana kisses, I see that there are only five of them. I look all around me, and even under me, hoping for that sixth piece. I shake the bag. Twice. Still only five. Someone will get left out. Someone will say I cheated. How can I make it work? I suddenly feel the oppressive weight of the humid air. The sound of Mamaw tapping the rolling pin against the side of the table sounds like thunder. The rotting apple smell grows stronger, and I feel like the skin is tearing away from my thighs as I shift uncomfortably on the floor. Nowhere in the universe can five be divided by six. This is more than a mathematical dilemma. It is a tragedy.

I close my eyes and try eeny-meeny-miney-moe. That will be fair, won’t it? My finger lands on Donna’s stack of candy. Donna is just getting over chicken pox. That isn’t fair. I could leave out Janet. If she isn’t wearing her glasses, she might not notice. I can’t pick Patsy. She would even notice if one of her peppermint sticks was too short. No, that won’t work. I have to live with my brothers. I can’t pick them. I close my eyes again and grit my teeth. When I open my eyes, I spot the two leftover Kits pieces. I put a banana kiss on five piles of candy, and put the leftover Kits on top of my crushed orange Safe-T-Pop. I drop my penny candy back in the paper bag and rock my way to my feet. “I’m done,” I yell.

I jump aside as brothers and cousins elbow each other to get in the room. They scoop up their candy and run back out to the porch in one fluid motion. I put my bag of candy on the lamp table by the old green couch. I think I’ll see if Mamaw will let me help with the sugar cookies.

Judy Neal is a 1998-99 Partners graduate. She has a visual disability. She has worked for several Centers for Independent Living and served as Independent Living Program Coordinator for the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. She regularly contributes to Midtown Living magazine in Memphis.