The Last Candy Store in East Apple
Story by Diana Searby and Charles Levin | Written by Charles Levin
[Reader’s Note: two weeks ago I invited readers to help me finish writing a short story I had half-written on a plane flight from San Francisco to New Jersey. Thanks to all those who contributed their very creative and fun ideas. I chose the ideas from Diana, whose suggestions work with my characters and elevate the premise. What follows is the finished story. Enjoy!]
When Becky walked into Abe’s corner store, she thought she knew what she wanted. Twizzlers. She wasn’t sure whether she liked the red ones or the black ones best, fake cherry or licorice. Still, the aroma of chocolate in the air got her thinking.
Abe’s was the only classic candy store and soda counter left in East Apple, maybe the last in the state. The rent kept creeping up but Abe, now in his 80s, insisted on keeping the small candies at a nickel and one scoop of ice cream at a dollar so the kids could afford it Most of them had little money and the neighborhood around Spevak Elementary had long since slipped out the middle class without anyone noticing. Except for Abe. Abe remembers working here as a kid when his father Saul started the business and named it after his young son.
Saul never assumed the store would last that long or that the son, after whom he named it, would one day run it and decades later continue to fight the tides of change.
“What’ll it be?” Abe asked as if he didn’t know her answer.
“Um, ah, I think I’ll try something different,” Becky said. With three fingers in her mouth, she swayed side-to-side. Her white dress with the little pink roses flew up from her sawing motion.
With a broad grin, Abe said, “Let me guess.” He hesitated, as if deep in thought. “Twizzlers!”
“Nooo. I said something different.”
“Vanilla ice cream with sprinkles. I remember you had that one time and liked it.” He could still picture the ice cream mustache on her upper lip.
“No. Not that.” She folded her arms and pursed her lips. She looked up at the etched tin ceiling with the two fans slowly turning. “I want a friend.”
Abe laughed. “But you have friends. I see you come in with the other kids.”
“They’re not my friends. They make fun of me and talk behind my back. I have no friends. Even Ernie, our cat died.”
“I’m your friend, aren’t I?”
Becky blushed. “Yes, you’re my friend, but that’s different. You’re—”
“Old?’ Abe snorted.
“No, I didn’t mean that. You’re a grownup and you’re very nice to all the kids.”
“Especially you, because you’re special.”
“I don’t feel special.”
“But you are. You’re smart and kind. You have a big heart. I can tell these things.’
Becky crossed one leg in front of the other and looked down at the soda and candy-stained cork floor. “I guess,” she said.
The two of them stood there in silence, seemingly lost in their own thoughts.
Meet My Friend…
Finally, Becky broke the silence. “Do you have any friends Mr. Goldberg?
“Sure all the kids are my friends. They come in almost every day and leave with smiles.”
“I mean real friends. Like somebody you hang out with when you close the store at night?”
Hang out? I guess Becky’s not a little kid anymore, Abe thought. “I live upstairs. Most nights when I close the store, I go up, make dinner and watch TV.”
“So that means you don’t have any friends either.”
Abe looked around at the dark cherry paneling that he helped his father put up decades ago. It seemed to get darker over the years or was that his imagination. He peered through the window that overlooked busy Central Avenue. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could afford this place.
He snapped out of his daydream. “Oh yes, sorry. Where were we?”
“We were talking ‘bout friends and how neither of us got none.”
“But I do have a friend. His name is Jerry. Would you like to meet him?”
Becky’s eyes went wide. “Who? What?”
“That’s the perfect question.” Abe reached below the counter, fumbled around for a minute, and placed his friend Jerry on the counter. Jerry looked like a large doll with loose arms and clown-pink cheeks. He wore a blue vest with a matching pointed hat, the rim of which was festooned with stars.
Now Becky laughed. “He’s not real. He’s a doll!”
“He’s real enough. Ask him a question.”
Becky snickered and put her index finger to her lips. “Ok. Jerry, how old is Mr. Goldberg?”
Jerry’s head slowly moved to the right and his blue eyes rolled up to stare directly at Becky. His lips moved. “Why, he’s 86.”
Becky squinted at Abe. He wasn’t touching Jerry, and his lips weren’t moving.
This Can’t Be Real
Becky sucked in a big breath and turned back to Jerry. “Are you Mr. Goldberg’s friend?”
“Yes, ever since I was born.”
Becky snapped her head in Abe’s direction.
Abe just smiled and held his hands up as if in resignation.
“I don’t get it. This can’t be real,” Becky said.
“I’m as real as you are,” Jerry said. “Just because I’m smaller and Abe, Mr. Goldberg as you call him, stuck this silly hat on my head doesn’t mean I’m not real.”
Becky folded her arms and looked from Jerry to Abe and back again
“Can I tell you a secret?” Abe asked Becky.
“I’m not sure how much longer this store will be here. Besides, I’m getting older. It hurts my knees to stand on my feet all day and I don’t feel so good at night.”
A tear formed in Becky’s eye, broke free, and rolled down her cheek. “But you can’t. You can’t close the store. All the kids count on you.”
“I know. That’s why I’ve stayed here all these years. But I may not have a choice. My health and my finances might put an end to this.”
Becky studied Abe’s face. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s been my great pleasure watching you grow up, all the way from kindergarten to sixth grade. Next year, you’ll go to a different school. You won’t miss this place.”
“But I would. I will. Don’t give up Mr. G. That’s what all the kids call you.”
“I know. I like that name.”
“And they all like you. I love you, in fact.”
Jerry sniffs and a tear rolls down his cheek.
Both Becky and Abe glanced at Jerry. Then Abe turned back. “You have always been my favorite, Becky. Your true goodness shines through like a beacon and makes me happy every time I see you.”
“Hey, what about me?” Jerry giggled.
“You, too.” Abe said. “I never had any children. You kids and Jerry here are like my children. Becky, can I ask you a favor?”
“Ah, yes. Sure, what is it?”
“If something happens to me, will you take care of Jerry?”
Jerry’s head pivoted to gaze at Becky.
Becky stamps her foot. “Nothing’s going to happen to you, Mr. G…. ever! I won’t let it.”
Abe smiles. “You really are so sweet. But age has a way of catching up with us older folks. You won’t need to worry about that for a long time. So?”
Becky looks at Jerry. Jerry grins and blushes.
Becky turns back to Abe. “Sure, I would, Mr. G. Don’t worry about Jerry. Don’t worry about the store. Don’t worry about anything. I will take care of it.”
“I’ve got to go,” Becky says. She rubs Jerry’s back, waves at Abe, and skips out the door. The bell hanging from the door jingles as Becky disappears into the twilight.
For three school days, and over the long weekend, Becky does not return to the store. “I’m getting worried,” Abe says to Jerry.
“She’ll be back. I can feel it,” Jerry says.
Abe straightens the jars full of small candies on the counter. “I’m glad you’re so sure. Maybe she’s sick.”
Abe glances at his watch. 3:30—schools out. Two minutes later, three girls followed by two boys come bouncing into the store. The girls giggle while the boys punch each other in the arm. They each pick their candies from the jar and plop down pennies and nickels on the counter.
Jerry is stone still as he always is when other people are around, except Abe and Becky.
“Hey, kids. Have any of you seen Becky, Becky Lawrence? She usually stops by after school.”
“Nope,” one boy says. The girls shrug.
The other boy says, “She’s usually in my math class and she hasn’t been there all week. The teacher says maybe Becky is sick. Dunno.”
“Oh, thanks,” says Abe. The kids run from the store and the door clangs shut. “I feel like I lost my only friend, besides you, Jerry.”
“Don’t worry,” Jerry says.
The weekend passes. On Monday afternoon, Abe can’t help staring out the window past the stenciled ABE’s even as kids come and go in the store to gather their sweets.
The store is empty. “I need a cigarette. I’ll be in back,” Abe says.
“You’re not supposed to smoke! Doctor’s orders,” Jerry says.
Abe waves Jerry off, taps the pack of Marlboros on the counter and slides one between his lips. He tilts his head and flicks his gold lighter. The pungent odor of tobacco smoke fills the air. Jerry fakes a cough and Abe heads to the back.
The bell on the door jingles. Abe smooshes his cigarette into an ashtray and turns. His face lights up like a Christmas tree. “Becky, where have you been? I’ve been so worried.”
Meet My Friends
Becky smiles. Standing behind her are two older women, one in a pink hat. The other sports giant turquoise earrings. With them is an older gray-haired man, He is stooped over, yet elegantly dressed in a dark gray suit with a red tie.
“I’ve been busy,” Becky says. “Meet my friends, Mrs. Stanley. Ms. Allison, and Mr. Lewis.”
Mr. Lewis steps forward and shakes Abe’s hand. He begins to speak in a creaky, halting voice. “We’ve heard a lot about you from little Becky here.” He pats Becky on the shoulder and she looks up at the elder gentlemen with a full-face grin. “She told us about how important your store is to the community and that you’ve been having some difficulty. Is that correct?”
Abe nods and raises one eyebrow. He shoots Becky a quizzical look. Jerry swivels his head but nobody notices.
“It’s not easy keeping this going after so many years. Then too, I’ve got health issues.” Abe’s voice trails off. “But I don’t understand. What’s this got to do with you? And how do you know Becky?”
Ms. Allison steps forward. “Becky volunteers at the St. Agnes Home. We all live there. Becky brightens our days. We all love her. When she told us about you… Well, we had to do something. So we have something for you.”
Mrs. Stanley extends her hand, holding an envelope. Abe doesn’t take the envelope. He just stares at it, then looks each of the three strangers in the eyes before peering down at Becky.
“Take it, Mr. G.,” Becky says. “It’s for you!”
Abe reaches for the envelope with a trembling hand.
“Open it,” Becky exclaims.
Abe slowly rips open the sealed envelope and removes a check. His face goes from crimson red to pale white. He braces himself against the counter. “Why? How? I can’t accept this.”
“You can and you will,” Mr. Lewis says. “This neighborhood needs you. These kids need you. You were too young to remember, but when I was Becky’s age, I went to Spevak Elementary. Every day after school, I came in to buy those tiny wax coke bottles. I’d bite off the end and drink that red sugary liquid inside. I don’t even think you sell those anymore.”
“I used to love those bubble gum-filled things that looked like cigarettes,” Mrs. Stanley says. “I’m sure you don’t sell those anymore either—politically incorrect.” She giggles.
“I always bought Dots and Chuckles,” Ms. Allison says. “I see you still sell those.” She puts a five-dollar bill on the counter.
“But what we remember most was your dad,” Mr. Lewis says. “He was always so kind to us. If we didn’t have any money, which in my case was often, he would slip me a candy bar anyway.”
“And the stories he used to tell about the war and the old country… had us enthralled,” Mrs. Stanley says.
“So, Abe, can I call you Abe? This is payback for all the fond memories and free candy too. All of us at St. Agnes pitched in. There’s enough there to cover your rent and bills and even a vacation.”
“A vacation?” Abe laughs. “I can’t leave the store. I’ve worked here six days a week for over fifty years and I have never taken a vacation.”
“Well, it’s about time,” Becky says. “Mr. Lewis and the others volunteered to cover the counter while you are away.”
Abe’s eyes well up. “I don’t know what to say.”
“We’d all love to be you for a week and run the store,” Mrs. Stanley says.
Jerry rotates his head, and his lips move. “Just take the money and say you’ll do it.”
The elderly people pivot to see what looks like a doll in a funny hat who just talked. In unison, their jaws drop.
It’s been many years since my mother, Becky, told me the stories about Abe. Jerry, and the corner store. Abe, and Mr. Lewis, Ms. Allison, and Mrs. Stanley are long gone. My mother, “Becky,” passed away last year. I miss her every day. She taught me so much about what it means to be a good human being and to give back. That the greatest value in life is kindness.
That’s probably why I became a nurse. It was a crazy-challenging but very fulfilling career. No regrets. I spent three decades at East Apple General in the ER. We saw every kind of human tragedy and generosity imaginable.
After working double shifts for two years during the pandemic, I decided to retire. Yet, at sixty, I still have a lot of energy. I want to give back and see those young, smiling faces every day.
So, last year I bought this candy store on the corner of Central Avenue across the street from Spevak Elementary. There’s more to the story, but I need to go now. It’s 3:30.
The door opens jangling the bells. Jerry blinks his eyes and cranes his neck to see.
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