The Candy Man
It was the year 2009, I was nine years old. With barely enough coins in my pocket, I went to the local candy shop. It was a small shop with just one small cubicle and an old man sitting on his half-broken chair. I had never been there before but I had seen the man walk around the streets before. He was dressed in khaki, with his round reading glasses sitting on top of his nose. His hair had fallen off and his skin was full of wrinkles. He was writing something in the newspaper, as his hands trembled due to his old age. I looked around at the items displayed in the front. Nothing caught my fancy. All of them were off-brand candies that I had never heard of before. Some of them didn’t even have any branding on them, just coloured balls and cubes in dirty jars.
Suddenly, I heard a loud thud and an angry woman yelling, “Here! Eat this!”
The thud was so loud I jumped. A woman had appeared from the back of the shop, with a small copper plate in her hands that she had put down on the table beside the old man. She was much younger than the man, must have been thirty-something. She was a big woman with small hands as I noticed when I saw the plate in her hands. They hadn’t noticed my presence yet, being the small dwarf that I was at the time, as I somehow tiptoed my head over the counter, through the jars to look at what was happening. The old man lifted the half-broken plate with trembling hands. It had some half-burnt rice with onions and a small pickle in it, which the old man started to eat without any hesitation. The woman noticed my presence, with her sharp piercing gaze, she yelled, “What are you doing here? What do you want?!” The old man looked up at me with his hand soaked in pickle juice and rice, on his face was a bright smile.
The woman noticed how scared I was of her sudden outburst, I think that made her calm down a little, although that is just speculation on my part, “Come in”, she said, “Candy?”
I nodded. She looked at the old man and pulled away from his plate, putting it back on the table. She pointed at me while looking at him, her eyes, opened wide with sternness. The old man slowly stood up, the woman left out back. The old man wiped his hands with a dirty cloth, and with a heavy voice he asked, “Which candy do you like?”
I pointed at the big jar on the top shelf, labelled “Crisper Candy”. “Ah!”, he laughed, “of course! Every kid wants this one these days, crispy on the outside and […]”, he climbed the shelf and brought down the jar. He tried to open it but the lid was too tight for him. After a good three minutes of labour, he somehow got it to open. “There you go.”, he said as he spread a bunch on the counter in front of me. I pulled out four coins from my pocket and placed them on the counter. He counted the coins, perhaps realising I was paying barely enough for two candies, he smiled and let me have all four he had placed on the counter. “Come again”, he said with a smile.
I looked at him with confusion and nervousness, took the candies and ran away. I did not go back there for another two months. I remember now that my school schedule had changed due to the coming winter. Every day, I came home at around three in the afternoon, with barely any energy left in my body, I would sleep for hours and then have supper before finishing my homework. On Saturday, however, I had a half-day at school, I was home early, I was not sleepy either and I had six coins in my pocket. The thought of buying candy came to my mind. I ran all the way to the candy shop. There it stood, the same small cubicle with off-brand candies in the front, the same old man reading a book. His glasses had a crack in them, and on his neck, it seemed like a dark blue ink stain. Looking back at it, I believe it was not really ink. It was his skin, that had turned blue from whatever had happened to it. I did not ask any questions, as I popped out from in front of the counter. “Hello”, I said. The old man looked up, “Ah! You came back.”, he said.
He remembered me. I had but visited the shop once. “Candy”, I said, pointing at the top shelf. “Of course!”, he said with a smile as he stood up with all the strength that he had in his frail body. He brought down the jar and said, “Here you go.”
As I saw his forearms, I noticed more marks all over him. They all looked like old dried ink, or perhaps something else, I couldn’t tell. He took my coins and said, “Come again”, with a smile. “I will”, I said as I walked away. He looked reassured.
I visited him every now and then after that. I realised from his conversations with the big woman that she was his wife. Sometimes when I would reach close to the shop, I would hear loud yelling from inside and would turn away without reaching the front, afraid that the angry woman would see me. But I would go another day and the old man was always happy to see me. He started giving me extra candy every time. I started smiling in front of him as I got comfortable in his presence. He would sometimes see me walk by and wave, as I would wave back. One day, I saw a young man visit the shop, which was a rarity as nobody did, other than me and a few other neighbourhood kids. He had some files with him that he showed the old man and the big woman, and for the first time, I saw the old man have such a horrified expression on his face. He never looked like that even after getting scolded and heckled by the big woman for hours. I saw all this as I stood at the counter. The man went away after saying some things that I did not understand.
The woman started yelling at the old man again, saying things like, “You ruined my life!” I ran away, for that’s all I was good for, at the time. A few days later, I visited the shop again, the old man sat, with sweat all over his face, in the broken chair, he had a bandage on his forehead. His front teeth were broken and there were cuts on his lower lip. “What happened?”, I said softly, from behind the counter. He saw me and wiped his face with the same dirty cloth he always used. With a desperate smile he said, “Ah, you came back.” He had placed some candy out for me already. “Here you go!”, he said. I gave him some coins and he said, “I don’t need that anymore. Keep the candy. It is a gift from me.”
I was happy. I smiled, “Thank you.” He smiled with his mouth closed, perhaps trying to hide his teeth. I walked away. Now that I remember it, he didn’t say, “Come again” this time.
A few weeks later, I heard from the neighbourhood kids that the old man had died. The official story was that he fell down the stairs of his house. I heard that his wife was held for interrogation for a while but she didn’t say much. After a week or so, she left and never came back to that place. Then, I heard that a restaurant was going to be constructed where his shop stood. I went to the place and took a long last look at the shop as it was to be demolished the next day. The chair was still there. People walked by the shop whispering to each other. I walked around the area for a bit. I don’t quite know what I expected from the shop. But it felt like as if the old man would come out from the back and smile as he used to. He didn’t, and I realised it soon enough. Many months later, I was leaving for Palampur with my mother. We had a long journey ahead of us and I was done packing up. We walked to the bus stop and sat down on the bench. I was eating crispers when I saw, at a distance, where the old man’s shop once stood, was a giant restaurant. I felt this sudden pain in my heart like someone had punched a hole through it. I yearned to run to the place for some reason. I told my mother I’d be back in a minute as the bus was to arrive much later. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me. In a minute, I was in the restaurant. It was dimly lit but clean, with some families eating at the tables. The employees walked around with trays in their hands. Some were moping the floor while others were cleaning counters. Their eyes looked as dead as a fish’s. I walked up to the counter and tried to look over.
“What do you want?”, said the cashier very coldly, “We don’t have all day…”
I looked around and couldn’t see whatever it was that I came for. The families eating at the tables looked miserable. The children seemed uninterested and annoyed. The lights were buzzing loudly and the yellow paper on the walls was dull and sad.
“What are you looking for?”, said the cashier, breaking the minute-long silence.
“The candy man.”, said I, inquiringly.
I grabbed a jar from the counter and looked at it. Candies from some of the most popular brands, in different shapes, their wrappers glittering like gold, filled up the jar to the brim.
“Ah, you want some of this candy?”, I nodded without thinking.
She gave me a handful as I gave her a few coins. She looked disappointed and frowned at me.
“That’s not enough money.”, she picked back a few candies from my hands.
As I turned around from the counter and started to the door. She said with a dull, uninterested tone of voice, “Come again…”
I ran out and didn’t stop until I reached the bus stop where my mother had been waiting for me. As the bus arrived and we took our seats, I pulled off the wrapper on one of these candies and put it in my mouth. I gazed out the window at the landscape and for some reason, the candy tasted bitter to me.