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Pennies From Heaven
by Paul Kiernan

Comic courtesy TOPPS

"I remember penny candy..."

We spent the summers in Marshfield, Mass. We used to walk down the beach, Mom and my brother and me. We’d go this place called Bud’s, a huge general store where you could get anything from fishing tackle to T-shirts to outboard motors to...penny candy.

Against the back wall were row after row of slat wood baskets filled with candy. Gumdrops and kisses, Swedish fish and licorice twists. Every kind of candy you could imagine. All of it a penny a piece.

Mom would give us a quarter each and my brother and I would pick up our small brown paper bags and walk slowly up and down the rows of baskets, taking our time. Making the perfect choices. Twenty-five cents bought twenty-five pieces of candy, and the assortment was mind boggling to the young, sweets-starved mind. I was allergic to chocolate, so mom would watch me closely making sure I didn’t let a Hershey’s Kiss or tiny Nestle’s Crunch Bar slip into my wee booty sack.

Atomic fireballs, caramel cream bull’s eyes, mouth puckering sourballs, and, of course the round, individually wrapped pieces of Bazooka bubblegum. FOR A PENNY. And that wasn’t all because, along with the gum, you got the wrapper. The wrapper had the Bazooka Joe cartoon, the joke, the fortune and the lucky number. All that entertainment for one penny.

Bags full, brimming with sugary treats, my bother and I trundled up to the register where—and this is the amazing part—the man behind the counter would ask how many pieces you had. He’d just ask. He wouldn’t count or weigh, he just asked.

"Twenty-five, please," I would say, always mindful to be polite. Fingers would pop the keys of the ancient register, the tiny 25 flag would pop up, and I would hand over my quarter. One quarter in exchange for the seam busting bag of candy. Pure joy.

We would walk back to the cottage from town along the beach showing mom our treasures and explaining to her why they were so good. Adults, we knew, didn’t fully grasp the simple perfection of penny candy. My brother and I would compete between each other over who made the best choices. I knew, somehow, that he had the best stuff because his sack contained the forbidden treat: chocolate. But he is a good soul, and he never played that trump card in our game of one-upsmanship.

Back at the cottage, we’d sit on the porch and lose baby teeth in the sugar laden rock of Bazooka gum. We’d laugh at Joe and try the jokes out on mom. What an achievement when she laughed. Even better when she explained the jokes to us and then they would be told over and over again at the dinner table for the rest of the week.

The summer of my twentieth year, my parents decided to sell the cottage. It wasn’t equipped for winter, and with the kids at school, it wasn’t worth the trouble of summer openings and fall closings. Most of the places around ours had become year-round, and familiar neighbors were fast disappearing. The quaint little town was growing up rather quickly.

In the summer of 1985 I decided to spend the season at the cottage, alone. As I opened windows and took protective sheets off the furnishing, memories of summers past flooded over me and I was overwhelmed with how much I missed the place. Once I got the rooms aired out and turned on the gas and the electricity, I headed down the beach. Down the old route to town.

As soon as I climbed up the concrete steps that led from the beach to the small town center, I realized my trip was a mistake. Bud’s, the run down everything store—penny candy haven—was completely different. It looked like it had been air lifted out of a strip mall and placed, shiny and clean, into the town square. I stood out front looking over the brand new block letter lighted sign. Gone were the ancient wooden steps and the black wood doors. Gone were the flock of geese and ducks that lived behind the fence with the motors and boats and piles of lobster traps. The quaint shop I remembered so well had spent its life savings of charm, character and warmth to buy a face lift. Now, it could stand proudly in a line up with any other Walmart or Kmart.

The inside was new as well. Polished linoleum floors, and coolers full of Diet Coke and Pepsi where the old soda fountain had been. The back wall, our weekly Mecca, was now covered with metal racks housing bags of chips and boxes of candy bars. When I asked where the penny candy was, the young girl behind the counter looked at me like I was an escaped mental patient.

"What happened to the penny candy? Where are the little brown paper bags?"

"We have bulk candy," she said. "You fill a bag and bring it to me and I weigh it."

"That’s okay," I said. "I bet it doesn’t taste the same."

"It’s just candy," she replied.

The walk back along the beach was depressing. Nothing seemed the same. I thought this beach was clean. Where did all the sea weed and trash come from? Back at the cottage, I unpacked my bag. I put shirts in the closet and then I opened the top drawer of a dresser my brother and I used to share as kids. The sweet smell of sugar smacked my nose. The bottom of the drawer was covered with Bazooka gum wrappers. The fossils of the one cent complete entertainment package.

I dumped the drawer out on my bed, sat down and read them all. The jokes were inane, the futures were ridiculous little plays on words and Bazooka Joe and his gang were a bunch of freaks. But, I laughed outloud and remembered summer nights and cheeseburgers and my mom telling us to stop clowning around and get to sleep and knock-knock jokes and my brother’s kindness about having chocolate. I put the wrappers in a plastic bag and put it into my case. I packed my bags, loaded the car, and headed back to my apartment.

In the morning, I was having coffee, talking to my mother on the phone. She asked why I had come home, why I wasn’t spending the summer at the cottage.

"Oh ... that place is just a dump," I told her. "I couldn’t stay there another minute."

"Well, that’s why we’re getting rid of it," mom said. "I have no idea why we held on to it for so long."

Later that day I went down to the hardware store and bought a handful of nails, I needed to put up some shelves. The nails were loose and the man put them in a small brown paper bag. At home I dumped out the nails and filled the bag with the gum wrappers. I put the bag in a small box with a handful of Hershey’s Kisses and mailed it off to my brother with a note. The note read, "Thanks for never playing the chocolate card."

A weeks later I came home from work and there was a message on my machine from my brother. All he said was, "I remember penny candy…" 

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