Meagan Cass completed her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College and is currently working on her Ph.D. in English at the University of Louisiana Lafayette. She is fiction editor for the online literary journal Rougarou, and her fiction has recently appeared in The South Carolina Review and in The Minnetonka Review, where it received the 2007 Editor's Prize.
They woke in the night, in their childhood homes, with a strange, mawkish hunger, a sprain in the chest, a clench of the gut, a small, dull-toothed animal stirring. The girl lived upstate, the boy lived downstate, and they did not know each other, had just taken degrees at different universities. Yet at one, two, three in the morning they each crept into their parents’ kitchens to find that nothing edible satisfied them. They took to sampling fistfuls of dirt from potted plants like pregnant women, to biting at their own cheeks, to sucking the briny copper of pennies but still, they could not sleep.
In the murky dark of a Monday morning in August, they packed up their cars, each headed for the other’s region. They were hopeful. They had each been making things out of words for some time. Living in a new placefires the imagination, they told their parents, who stopped throwing things at each other just long enough to hug them too tightly, to press crumpled dollar bills into their hands, to offer the standard words for separation, unremarkable and yet vaguely haunting, like a pile of chicken bones: goodbye, we’ll miss you, take care, best of luck, be careful.
They drove fast with the windows down, the pastoral scenery blurred, green ribbons out their windows, the herds of grazing deer not looking up as they raced past, mosquitoes hitting their windshields and dying in spindly stars. As the sun rose and the clouds burned off, the boy and girl were metallic and in control, cutting across the sleepy, ragged belly of New York State. Merging onto Scenic Highway 17, they imagined all the word things they would make in their new lives, perfect houses of narrative built to the right proportions, wildly original and yet so hospitable. Gabled and all that.
Imagine flying above them in an airplane, seeing their toy cars creeping closer toward one another through the inky spills of cloud shadows. They believe in their own independence. They have woven no tenuous threads home. They have thrown up their isolation quickly and clumsily, like so much cheap housing. You know it will not hold.
At noon, just as they were about to pass each other, they were starving again and saw the billboards. Since they were traveling on opposites sides of the highway the billboards were facing opposite directions, but they said the same things. “America’s Only Candy House! So clean you can eat off the floor…OR THE ROOF!” the first proclaimed, the bubble letters striped red to look like candy canes. “A Fine Family Adventure! DESSERT IS ON THE HOUSE!” insisted another. A third pictured a woman dressed like Nougat Nancy from the Sugartown board game the boy and girl each played as children. Only this Nougat Nancy’s skirt was hiked up above the knees, she was curvaceous, and her turquoise eyes took up her whole face like two disco balls. She held a bright yellow lollipop, her other hand held coyly behind her back, the words “America’s Only Candy House…STOP IN FOR A LICK!” beneath her.
“Christ,” thought the girl. “It’s either got really good chocolate or really weird porn.”
“It’s ridiculous enough to be worth a stop,” thought the boy.
He pulled off at the appropriate exit, onto a service road and fell in line behind the girl, the two of them following the pointing hand of an anthropomorphic gummy bear that served as a road sign. “You’re Almost at America’s Candy House” was written across the bear’s wide, glistening stomach.
Flung deep in the woods several miles from the interstate, the place had more of the air of a shoddy vacation cabin than of the roadside extravaganza they had expected. The gravel driveway was lined with plastic swizzle sticks that had seen better days, tilting in either direction, and the mailbox, a giant Pez dispenser with a rabbit head, was covered in bird shit, one of its vacant black eyes weathered away. The full, August trees shook with wind, cropping the noonday sun into shifting rectangles of light. Famished, they stood blinking at the structure before them, a squat, brown cottage with a trippy candy cane pattern painted around the windows. The white roof was black with a few plastic-looking nonpareils affixed to it like a ruined game of Othello. The air smelled like sulfur from the refinery one town over. Someone had graffitied “Fuck You Suzanne” across the front walk.
They were the only ones in the lot, despite the billboards, and they took a moment to check each other out, the way any two humans of the same age group will. She did not think him particularly attractive, though there was something about his muscular shoulders, his long torso, the thinness of his black t-shirt that made her uneasy. He did not think her particularly attractive, with her skinny legs and her cloud of frizzy blond hair and her fussy cardigan. She had an air of fidgety aggression in her, in the way she tapped her foot and squinted her face while looking up at the candy house, which made him want to elbow her in the stomach.
A wiry man in jeans, purple cowboy boots and a T-shirt that said “No Fear” burst from the house.
“I would shoot myself in the foot for a cigarette right now,” he said, crossing his arms over chest, sticking out his hips. “But I’ve quit. And the gum is not the same, don’t believe anyone who tells you that.”
His hair was greasy, his sunken face pitted with acne scars, and he had one of those mustaches that curls up on either end in a perpetual grin. There was a dark red carnation pinned to his shirt, as if, as an afterthought, he’d decided to go and crash someone’s high school prom. He smelled like hot tar.
“You own this place?” the boy asked.
“Is this the Candy House?” the girl asked.
“I don’t know what you were expecting,” said the man. “A chocolate river? You’re not in paradise, folks, you’re in central New York. But we do what we can. Decent selection of high quality chocolates. Hot chocolate in the winter months.”
He spoke with the boisterous, theatrical air of a ringmaster, waving an arm to display each sentence.
“College kids? All of life before you and all that shit?”
The girl smiled, slid her hands in her pockets. The boy looked down at his feet. They each muttered something about being on the way to somewhere.
“Well, well, that’s great for you,” said the man. He cut his small, dark eyes back and forth between them. “This way, please. We’ll fix you with something good.”
. . .
Inside the house was unremarkable, boring even. On the living room floor yellowed copies of Penthouse were stacked in messy piles like precarious monuments. There was a hokey display in the vestibule featuring a miniature boy and girl with rosy cheeks and curly hair standing on a circle of synthetic grass, giant lollipops clenched in their fleshy fists. The place smelled like what they thought of as an old person’s house, a combination of cough syrup and moth balls.
Yet there was something subtly unstable about the living room walls, which were the color of chapped lips, and the marshmallow-white leather couches, cartoonishly big for the space. The lollipop wall art, metal garbage pail lids painted with clumsy swirls, the decadent crown moldings around the doors and windows in reds and pinks, the giant plastic rock candy sticks leaning in the corner like cave men’s clubs, and the jelly-bean patterned throw rug, created the lurid, dirty feel of a funhouse at a Fourth of July carnival in a small town. The wood floor, they noticed, was sticky, from God knows what.
Still, they were hungry. They looked at each other, decided that the other was unlikely to cause any serious harm. They looked at the yellowed postcards on the rack in the corner showing the Candy House in its glory days, the yard a flourishing garden of blown glass lollipop ornaments, the old man standing in front of it, younger looking, his teeth white and straight, his body muscular, a woman with gallons of messy hair in his arms smiling widely, the title “America’s Sweethearts” printed beneath them. The boy and girl peered into the small kitchen off the living room, where the old man was puttering in the cabinets. It was a standard kitchen, blue-tiled with yellow walls.
“Ah ha,” said the man. From deep in one of the cabinets he pulled a chocolate gift box, the kind of thing given to an elementary school teacher at the end of the year or to someone half-loved, and led them back into the living room. “We don’t get much business at all,” he said. “People have lost their sense of nostalgia, their sense of wonder. They only like to stop for fast food.”
A breeze blew through the open window, filling the room with the spicy musk of cinnamon.
“Is it really?” said the girl.
“Is it stable?” asked the boy
“Now I have one question for you,” the man said, putting a hand on each of their knees. “Have you ever been in love?”
The boy and girl laughed, looked at each other. Who was this guy? What a nut job.
“Of course,” they said, though neither had been on more than a few disappointing dates.
“Was it terrible?” asked the man, “Of course not,” the boy and girl said.
“Then you’ve never been in love,” the man said, rubbing his hands together, putting more chocolates into their hands.
The boy and girl leaned back on the couch. They were suddenly very tired from driving. This quaint cottage, carved into the mountains, its living room windows filled with the merciless green of the Catskill Mountains, seemed a wonderful place to rest. They each took more candy. It tasted like chocolate should, the thin milky casings falling apart easily to give up tangy cherry centers. They watched each other’s thin, supple wrists, watched the other’s hands grab, extend up to mouths. The man stood up so he towered over them, said it’d be rent-free in exchange for some light maintenance, keep the candy racks full, the peppermint sticks polished, the giant gum drop bouncy balls inflated; pick the fruit and vegetables from the garden out back or wild animals with sharp teeth will be at your door, grown arrogant and vicious with plenty. Do not dare eat any more of the candy.
He showed them the two small upstairs bedrooms, each furnished with a twin bed, dresser and a child’s size desk, all done in faux wood. They watched him peel out of the drive, a cigarette in his mouth, and then the house was quiet as a cube of glass.
. . .
For weeks it was a workable life. They spent their days in their separate rooms kneading paragraphs, mixing index cards scrawled with ideas. The furniture was small, but they were able to cram themselves into the desks, bend themselves into the beds. Sometimes they wouldpass each other on the way to and from the bathroom and joke that they were peeing in America’s Only Candy House.
There were few visitors. In late August pairs of University students on their way to upstate or downstate schools came into the Candy House and laughed at all the kitsch and wrote the name of their universities in the guest book, the forceful acronyms shouting on the yellowed paper. BU. UB. NYU. SUNY. The couples fumbled shyly around the copies of Penthouse. Their bubbly, repetitive curiosity quickly grew tiresome to the boy and girl. They fell into the habit of leaving the boxes of chocolate on the coffee table for the students with a sign that said “eat me.” They had never claimed to be people persons.
Then there were the lonely, restless people, the divorcees, the widows and widowers, the worried parents, their children away fighting the latest war. The boy and girl sat them down, poured them glasses of the pomegranate juice the old man had left them in the fridge, listened to their stories, offered them plates of neatly arranged chocolates. They never questioned their own prohibition. It made perfect sense. They were like bartenders, existing around vice but not engaging in it. Calm. Removed. They nodded with what they thought was sympathy. If there had been clean, white gloves they would have worn them.
Labor Day a herd of minivans converged in the parking lot. From their windows the boy and girl watched boys in yellow-and-black soccer uniforms spring from the sliding doors and run toward the Candy House, punching and tripping each other on the way, their parents and siblings trailing behind them. The boy and girl stopped making word things and presented the boxes of chocolates, a large bag of swizzle sticks, a package of sucking candies and some licorice. There had never been such a big group and they were slightly embarrassed of the shape the house was in: they had left dirty juice glasses on the coffee table; the television was tuned to a cooking channel; and there were still the piles of Penthouse.
But the boys did not seem interested in fairy tales, in witches or magic or Hansel and Gretel. They quickly ate the chocolates, sucked on the sugar sticks, chewed on the licorice, their little cleats making sucking noises on the sticky living room floor. As they ate more sugar they got more rowdy, kicking at the giant, plastic gumdrops resting in the corners, passing them back and forth like soccer balls. They ran up the stairs and looked into the bedrooms, complaining that nothing was really made of candy and why were there papers in a candy house. One of them tried to bite into the purple banister.
Then the soccer player parents were there in khakis and jeans and white sneakers, yelling that it was still soccer season and the boys had signed contracts not to eat any junk food and they were just here to see the Candy House and have a little snack. The soccer player boys threw their candies into the garbage in the kitchen one by one, their faces assuming the guilty seriousness of baseball players caught taking steroids. Their older siblings hung back around the postcards, signed their names in the jellybean-patterned guest book. An overweight teenage boy in a T-shirt with a giant, grinning skull on it explained that they were a select soccer team from Rochester, The Yellow Jackets, and that they had been eliminated in the early round of a prestigious tournament on Long Island. “It’s been a hard trip home,” he said, picking at one of his cuticles, then letting his large hands drop to his sides. “I got one of the mothers to give me a blow job in the hotel elevator, though,” he whispered, glancing quickly over his shoulder at a trim woman in tight jeans, heeled boots, and a blazer, wiping chocolate from a small boy’s face with a handy-wipe.
“Liar,” the boy and girl laughed when the teenager and the rest of the caravan were gone.
. . .
That night they met in the kitchen, poured glasses of the pomegranate juice. They had come to love drinking it in small doses from the tall, thin glasses in the cabinet, sucking it up like nectar. They drank the juice and talked word things for hours, each unimpressed with the other’s conversation but nonetheless content. They noticed that the pitcher of juice kept refilling itself in the refrigerator. This odd abundance made them uneasy, but it was good to talk, to forget about the mocking green out their windows and the small, neat boxes of their rooms. “I am happy,” they told their family and friends over the phone.
In September they came together most evenings to cook dinner. The vegetable garden was bountiful—zucchini, tomatoes, pumpkins and squashes hung heavily from the plants—and the old man had left them a well stocked spice rack and a good black pot. They got adventurous in their cooking, bungling soups and stews, making their own stock, laughing at each other’s foibles, sometimes moving out to the front stoop afterwards to sit in the cool night, their new world cupped in darkened hills, verdant and mysterious and claustrophobic. Horizon-less.
After a particularly successful dinner, they moved to the couch, paged through the guest book, read and chuckled over its fading travelers’ messages. “Your candy is simplistic and your décor is overwrought,” Eric and Melanie from Manhattan had written in July 2005. In 2000 Mark from Troy, New York said, “Down with the man, down with corporate candy, Vote Nader.”
Then there were a spree of messages from the Reagan era about the value of such a wholesome family rest-stop. “What sweet kids! We’ll never forget the fruit punch fountain!” said Constance and Thomas of Elmira, New York, 1981.
The ’60s and ’70s were more ambivalent about the Candy House. “How come there weren’t any Gobstoppers?” complained Bruce from Ohio, 1979. “Gone to Canada, not coming back to this Godforsaken country. You can have your candy,” wrote Anonymous, 1968. The last entry: “Free candy free country. And keep putting whatever you’re putting in the marshmallows!” wrote Steve from Port Washington, Long Island, June 1967.
The boy and girl took long sips of their juice, sighed with the easy melancholy of people who have suffered but have fallen, inexplicably, into a kind of bounty. They did not notice that the house was changing shape with each new thing shared. The roof was leavening. The wooden beams in the living room, the house’s skeleton, took on the shiny, red gleam of hard candy. The boy and girl in the vestibule were awakening, bringing their lollipops up to their mouths over and over again, their acorn shaped heads swiveling back and forth.
“This has been a productive day,” said the boy, on his fourth glass of juice. He looked at the girl’s buttoned up cardigan.
“We have an amazing setup here,” said the girl. She looked at the boy’s T-shirt, could almost feel the thin fabric in her hands.
Afterward they thanked each other politely, dressed quickly, slipped into the small, cramped, separate beds, giddy with the easiness of it. Satisfied.
. . .
The next day, moving about their chores, working on word things, each avoiding the other, they noticed a change in the light in the house. The panes of glass in all the windows were tinted red and green and yellow. They wondered if they should call the old man, but they figured it must have something to do with the new fall cool. They sprayed the windows with a bottle marked “saccharine preserve” they’d found under the sink and went on with their work, which was taking odd turns. Ideas like strange vegetables—cucuzza, mirliton, celery root—bulged and then went bad on their pages. They looked out their stained windows. At night they crept back towards each other again.
It was this way for several weeks. During the day they would forget about the head resting in the crook of the other’s shoulder, the plate of the bed, the salty, warm bread of each other. They would pretend that the teeth marks, sprinklings of paprika on each other’s necks, then hands, then arms, were from some central New York insect they didn’t know the name of yet.
In October the hills pulsed with fall color, and busloads of fall foliage tours arrived, moving hesitantly through the house, the men in flannel shirts jammed into worn jeans, the women in those seasonal-themed sweat suits with pumpkins on them.
“Aren’t you two darling,” a middle aged woman from Pensacola said one day, smoothing down her hair.
They were all in the living room, the boy and girl passing out candy.
“You two married?” the woman asked.
“No, of course not,” said the girl quickly, wanting to punch the woman right in the pumpkin.
“This thing sound?” her husband asked, pressing at the walls, staring up at the ceiling.
“It’s fine,” said the boy, though in the nights now, when the northern winds blew down from Canada, they could hear the joints of the place creaking, could sense its imminent collapse.
Despite the early frosts the back garden continued to thrive, grew monstrous in its thick vines and bulging offerings, but by November they had lost their appetite for vegetables, preferring mainly to suck and lick at the house’s exposed beams, which were all red now, like they were living inside a flawed, tinker toy heart. At night they could hear deer and rabbits rustling amongst the tomatoes and squashes, biting down on the soft fruit with coarse teeth, scratching at the door of the house. All the beige walls smelled of vanilla and the crown moldings around the doorways and windows became almond-flavored toffees. When they were hungry and in the middle of unwieldy word things, the boy and girl liked to reach out and break some off, tonguing the stringy pieces into knots. The windows thickened to hard candy like Jolly Ranchers, making it harder to see the outside world, the trees rendered vague, underwater forms, the sun a blurry, glowing ball. They did not mind. It was so warm in here.They could almost believe they had imagined love this way. They listened to the sound of the children downstairs, crawling around, sometimes answering the door and offering food to visitors, sometimes speaking with their parents on the telephone, telling everyone how very happy they were. At night the boy and girl slept fitfully, their lips lined with sugar. One by one they lost their teeth.
In the nights, he would imagine folding himself up and slipping into the freezer amongst the cut vegetables, the slow drain of blood from the limbs, the gradual ebbing of desire. In the nights, she would imagine him in a cage, imagine closing her eyes and believing he was the twig, the denial of love he thrust out, a thing she could break over her knee and walk away from. In the days, in the slow, stock-taking hours, they still worked index cards into word things, hoping that their ideas would become plenty for the whole of them in the nights when they lay, curled like beans, wanting dreams of a candy house with walls made of words and no oven.
The night the roof came down they went to the basement, ducked into the musty dark of it, sat down on the cool concrete and turned on the lights. It was here, in the solid gray, that they noticed the loss of mass. They were like stick figures woven of blood red licorice ropes. And then they knew that the man and the woman in the postcard had slowly claimed parts of each other, had whittled each other away. And they understood the nature of the haunting here. And they could leave then, could help each other back up the stairs, could return to their dusty cars and, in new cities, relearn how to eat Cream of Wheat, to bite the hard, tart flesh of apples. They would not sneer at other people’s desperation.
But every once in a while, in the evenings, a husband and a wife sleeping beside them in good beds, in brick houses, they might lick their lips. They might sit up, go to the kitchen for a bowl of sugary kids’ cereal, and think how some nights they had so enjoyed it, the sweet, tangy taste of their own disappearance.