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The Candy Man

Rochel Grunewald

He thinks of a decade of little hands reaching up to snatch their prizes from the air. Fleeting warmth of loving and being loved, of sweetness and sugar and puffs of cotton candy that melt upon touch

Thursday, October 13, 2016

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He hadn’t wanted to bring candy this year. He’d told Sheindy, broke the news at the Motzaei Yom Kippur seudah, and she’d listened quietly, soup spoon paused midair, and head cocked to one side. Just listened, and when he’d finished, she’d nodded and murmured something and continued eating.

T he Candy Man steps into the center of the pulsing, teeming circle and raises his hand high. It works like magic every time.

He dangles his bait, swinging it to the beat of Mah, mah, mah ahavti… Within five seconds, he is surrounded.

Crowds of boys gather around him; some holding onto yarmulkes with one hand as they jump into the air to claim their prizes, the younger ones scrambling on the floor for the leftovers, and even a few bar mitzvah-aged boys, slightly self-conscious in their oversized hats, muttering a quick thank you as they cram Laffy Taffys and chocolate-coated wafers into bulging pockets. The Candy Man lets his hand fall, leaning on the bimah and surveying the excitement.

At the periphery of the circle stand the Lefkowitz twins and their friend, that redhead. Funny how the red-haired one is already bar mitzvah. He can’t for the life of him remember the boy’s name, something with an ‘E’ maybe? And the twins, with their delightful freckles and matching mischievous twinkles in their eyes, their double-bar mitzvah bash already booked with Leibel the gabbai — it’s coming up in a few weeks now, if he remembers correctly. He remembers when they were born, he realizes, something squeezing at the corner of his heart.

It was such a simchah, Lefkowitz having twins after four years. The whole shul was in an uproar. Four years, after all, is a long time.

That was nearly thirteen years ago. He was a chassan back then.

Twelve years. That’s even longer.

Sounds, song, feet stamping, and the overpowering swirl of joy slide back into his consciousness. He steals a glance at the one-way glass window in the mechitzah and remembers to mask all emotion with a beatific smile. Even without seeing her, he knows exactly where she is standing: far left, pressed to the window, machzor held open to the right page with one thumb while the other hand clutches tight bags of replacement nosh for his stock, for the Candy Man’s endless supply of sugar-coated magic. And he knows without seeing that she is watching as intently as she does every year as he steps into the middle and the children swarm like honeybees. For one day, one minute, he sees smiles lighting up his world and a fire leaps up in his heart.

Longing and love. Desperation and joy. So painful, but so warm.

And from the other side of the glass, Sheindy watches. Alone.

The sky is lit up by a thousand sparks.

“How was it?” she asks, because she knows he’s waiting for her to ask.

He gives her a quick, grateful grin before turning his gaze back to the shadowy pavement. “Very leibedig. Nice. I gave out everything in the three bags you prepared. We have more for tomorrow?”

“Another four,” she says, laughing a little, and his heart expands. He wants to thank her, to give words to the inexpressible feelings surging inside him, and to tell her how amazing she is for doing all this for him, for his moments of sunshine while she stands to the side. But he knows she knows, and the words linger on his tongue like the softest marshmallow fluff before sliding back down his throat.

“Wow,” he says lightly, instead. “Well-prepared as always.”

She murmurs something, it could have been “my pleasure,” but he isn’t sure. It doesn’t matter, though. She understands.

 

“The lollipops, those giant twisty ones you drove out to Chaim’s to buy? They were a hit. I had to promise some kids to bring them more tomorrow because there was such a fight over the last one. You have some in the bags, don’t you?” His voice turns anxious; little Sruli Mendelsohn doesn’t take kindly to disappointment, and the Rothman boy, Leibel-the-gabbai’s son, shouldn’t have to lose out just because of his bashful personality, so unlike his father’s. “Of course,” she says smoothly.

He nods. “And the twins and their friend, they still go for those sour bears, just like they always did.”

“Effy Klein.”

“Huh? Oh, the redhead, that’s right. How do you know his name?” He looks at her with surprised interest. Sheindy explores the night sky, head tilted back.

“I — know him. I asked someone whose kid he was, actually. Just watching the dancing, he looked a bit lost. I wanted to know who his mother was, so I could say something.”

“Say what? That he looked lost?”

“Of course not! I dunno, maybe how good he looked in his hat, just to, y’know, see if I could maybe draw attention to the fact that he looked a little sad…”

He shakes his head. “Sheindy, why do you need to go there?”

“Go there?” she repeats, as if they haven’t ever had this conversation before and she doesn’t know where on earth he’s heading. “Mordy, you know me. I can’t see a child suffering and not try to do something to put a smile back on his precious face. You know. With your candy.”

She cannot be comparing her all-consuming compassion to his cherished, private hobby — no, need — to stand surrounded by little feet and innocent laughter and lock eyes with their pure, happy gazes for just a few seconds. He takes a deep breath and sees a dozen Simchas Torahs flash before his eyes: Sheindy, comforting a flu-ish child in the shul’s meeting room; Sheindy, calling him over between hakafos to tell him to ‘make sure Benny in the brown suit gets nosh, his brothers keep taking his portion’; Sheindy, searching for mothers or fathers of little ones who’d gotten lost in a tangle of feet and couldn’t find their way back to their parents.

“I know you. But you know what I think about it.”

“Of course I know. We’ve been through this, not just once. You think I — we — aren’t qualified enough to help people out with their children, don’t you?” There is an edge of bitterness in her tone and he can hardly believe it’s his wife talking.

“But I disagree, Mord,” she continues. “It’s not like that at all. We can see and think and feel, too. We can give and love and open our hearts to let other little ones inside. And if I see a child who doesn’t seem okay — you want me not to say something?”

Actually, he’d prefer she didn’t see them at all, for the anguish it causes her. He shakes his head. She raises an eyebrow, as if to say then what? But neither of them say a word for the next half a block, until he finally speaks.

“Next year…” he says, and the words are a wish and a prayer and a hope and a plea, all rolled into one. He dares to look over at Sheindy, but the moment has passed and she is inscrutable once more. “Next year, if He wills it,” she responds in almost a whisper, the words barely discernible.

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