Penny Candy

Our mother used to complain that whenever we got our dirty mitts on a nickel, we ran to the corner store to buy penny candy. She often withheld the coinage in her determination to curtail our sugar consumption.

As luck would have it, the penny candy store was next to a used car lot. They must have also had a towing operation for cars that were totaled. The mangled cars were moved to a lot behind both businesses until they were transported to a permanent junkyard.

This was back before seatbelts were required and, in fact, seemed like an unnecessary appendage to the seats. It was also before the push for compact cars had gotten traction. These junkyard cars were heavy metal beasts with speedometers that went up to 150 or 175 mph. On those late summer Saturday nights after the bars closed, groups of people hit the long, dark country roads, some determined to bury the gauge on the far right end of the speedometer.

We were intrigued by the cars, which were frequently mashed like accordions. Sometimes the door would have bent open in the accident. It was likely one of these times that our curiosity beckoned us into the wreckage, where we found loose change on the floor of the car. Afterwards, of course, we knew to try the door or crawl through the holes where windows had been.

Greedily, we collected the coins. Sometimes they were as crumpled as the car was, defying our ability to imagine how it could have happened in the crash. Sometimes the coins had blood on them. At first the blood induced eye-widening amazement, but shortly thereafter it just meant “spit and rub.”

We divided the spoils between us and hurried back to the corner store, slapping our loot on the counter and ordering ourselves another round of Swedish fish, hot balls, and Mary Jane chews.



Sleeping Outside

Dad pitched the tent a couple days before the sleepover was scheduled. He said it needed to air out, that it was musty from having been in the shed for so long. It was his thick green canvas army tent. You could fit a table and chairs for six and still have room for sleeping bags if you wanted to. It was humongous.

He didn’t put it up very often and when he did there was a lot of cussing. Aunt Arlene used to laugh and say there weren’t enough cuss words for Dennis, my dad, so he made up new ones as he went. She was right. When he was mad, any word could become a swear and the use of them became a competitive sport, in which he was the only athlete. For years I thought the word “touchhole” was obscene until some girlfriends and I got hysterical by saying it and actually looked it up. It’s not a cuss by Merriam-Webster’s account, but in my father’s mouth, it was atrocious.

When the tent came out of the shed, my mother started searching for enough loose change to take us for ice cream. She couldn’t stand to listen to it and she did not want to start hearing Dad’s vocabulary come out of our eight and six year old mouths. No thank you. By the time we got home, the tent was up under the stand of birch trees. Dad was sitting on a lawn chair inside the tent and drinking a can of beer.

I visited the tent every day, running circles inside it and pretending it was a circus tent. Sometimes, I lay down in the middle of it with my arms and legs stretched out, imagining my Dad in the army. Finally the day arrived for the sleepover and my mother had to sweep all the grass and gravel out of the tent. Maybe it got in there when I rode my bike around inside it, but who knows?

My friends Amy, Leslie, Debbie, and Marsha came over with their sleeping bags and pillows, but it was hours before dark and so we had hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill and made cake in my Easy Bake oven. We strung beads to make necklaces and bracelets until the sun sank below the tree line and it was time to drag our sleeping bags across the grass and put them in the tent. After some discussion, we decided we would sleep with our heads in the middle of the tent with our feet extending out from the center like a star.

We told stories and played with our flashlights until my mother yelled from the house to stop wasting the batteries. We turned them off and continued to talk, laughing until my mother called out that we would wake the dead and the dead would go to the tent first to see what the commotion was about.

We tossed and turned on the hard ground and the dampness crept into our blankets, making our skin feel clammy. Putting our heads inside our sleeping bags, we filled them with our breath and flailed against the mosquitoes buzzing in our ears until a light shower of rain pattered us to sleep.


I am trying to explain to myself why I am not in Maine today, because not being there is a physical pain. It’s my first day of vacation and all I can think of is sunfish.

A freshwater sunfish at the end of your hook—no matter how big a fish it is relative to other sunfish—is too small and bony for a fisherman, who must scorn it before throwing it back into the pond.

On the other hand, to a young swimmer, nervous about the Loch Ness monster, about octopuses, whirlpools, and mucky pond bottoms, to a swimmer who keeps an eye on her bare feet under the water until she can’t reach the bottom any longer and so has to float like a board on top of the water, keeping her feet as far as possible from the murky depths where a disembodied hand might rise from the mud to grab them, to this sort of swimmer the sunfish may be a gentle friend.

Not concerned with bones and eating or catching and releasing, the swimmer can delight in the flat fish that shimmers in the sunlight. The sunfish might nibble on a leg at rest in the water—tasting its surface as it might a sunken log—so lightly that the person might not notice it at all if in conversation, in thought, or otherwise distracted.

On the other hand, its nibble may startle and become a tickle and gasp affair that sends the sunfish darting to the safety of a shadow or into the plume rising up from the pond floor, stirred by feet dashing for shore, where they will be safe from piranhas pretending to be sunfish.

Once on shore, it’s difficult to ignore the instructions from a nervous grandmother, who can’t swim and lives in fear of drowning grandchildren, grandchildren who should not swim past the floating dock in front of the camp, but who do so while pretending to be deaf to her admonishments. The dock marks the spot where their grandfather can wade, hurling his mass through chest-deep water—because he can’t swim either—in less time than it takes to drown, a race that’s been tested just once, but he won it and we’re all still here as a result.

“Put that life jacket on right instead of standing there fussing with it,” one of several adults says as he pulls, tugs, clamps and clicks it into place.


“My god, I can’t breathe you’ve got it on so tight.”


“It’ll loosen up in the water, so forget your complaining, miss. You’ll be lucky if you can float with all the potato salad you ate. Without that lifejacket, you’d sink like a stone. Now go on with you.”

Bellies protruding, we grandchildren hop across hot stones, throwing ourselves into the pond, kicking up walls of water in our wake to discourage any would-be pursuers from following too close behind. They can’t follow us into the pond or they would ruin their freshly curled permanents, their new sundresses, and their hearing aids. They would lose their new contact lenses that would float away from their wide-open eyes to be nibbled by curious sunfish under the dock.