I am sitting on one side of a chipped Formica table. Under the bench seat is a pullout bed. My adult mind can’t remember sleeping on it, but I know I must have because there are no other options in this cartoonishly small camper.
My grandfather sits on the other side of the table. In front of him is a bourbon highball. While other kids might be repelled by the rotten smell of cheap sour mash, to me, Old Crow and Coke is the smell of going out to brunch after church on Sundays and sitting in the cheap seats at baseball games. It’s the smell of lounging at the kitchen table with Jack Buck’s voice on the tinny radio and asking for a Shirley Temple with extra cherries please while he confers with his bookie at one of the neighborhood bars.
In front of me is a handful of gumdrops. I’m not normally allowed to have candy, and this is such an obnoxious amount of it (by my standards) that I’m not sure what to do with it. I know I want to save the purple and red ones for last. That’s Kid Policy. I’m sure my grandfather procured these gumdrops for me. He has lackadaisical view of child nutrition. My grandmother is only slightly more disciplinary, but even she sees my parents’ practice of allowing only healthy hippie food to enter my mouth as a little disturbing. My parents aren’t in the camper. They could be in town, or, in hindsight, maybe out getting drunk or stoned with their friends. My sister is an infant, which would make my dad not yet 30 and my mom only 25. I’m older now than she was then. I have a cat and an apartment that I rarely bother to clean, while she had two kids, a husband, and a mortgage. Our TV sat on two-by-fours atop cinder blocks. Their only material indulgence is this camper, which is really just a very small trailer in a line of other trailers on the edge of a lake in southern Illinois. This is back when working people in the Midwest could have “clubhouses” and go to them on the weekends.
Because I am the careful, pragmatic child, I am thinking about the gumdrops. I can see that my grandfather wants me to eat them; he is impulsive and would prefer to see me shove them all in my face at once. I’m only three, and that would be funny. I know that my tendency to scrunch up my forehead in thought confuses him sometimes. He raised his own son and a noisy passel of future criminal nieces and nephews. This maternally-generated trait I have for consideration is foreign to him, and he’ll have to wait for my sister to get older to see the destructive nature of his end of the gene pool.
I don’t shove the gumpdrops in my mouth all at once. Instead, I begin sorting the gumdrops by preference. Purple and red are pushed to the far right. I can’t read yet but I know this is how sentences work. The last part is on that end. In the middle are orange and white. Green and yellow are on the left because I don’t know what green is supposed to be and I’m not sure if I want to gamble without knowing for sure if yellow is lemon or banana. I can’t take a bite to find out, because gumdrops have a grainy coating of sugar that must be sucked cleanly off before they can be eaten. These are just the rules. There’s one black gumdrop, which I push across the table with the tip of my index finger.
“For me?” he asks, stubbing out one Winston cigarette. He lights another immediately.
“You don’t like the black ones?”
I shake my head.
“Hey, Shirley!” he calls to my grandmother, who by virtue of the camper’s size is only a step and a half away. “She doesn’t like the black ones!”
“John...” my grandmother warns gently.
“They’re too spicy,” I explain. Of course I don’t get the joke.
My grandfather pops the black gumdrop in his mouth and I smell astringent licorice underneath the perfumey bourbon.
“Mmmm,” he says. “I can’t believe you don’t like this!”
He says this about everything I don’t like. His method of getting me to eat grownup foods is expressing disbelief at my preference. What do you mean you don’t like cabbage? Cabbage is delicious! See? And then he’d take a huge bite, chewing with relish. Luckily, though, he is not the biggest fan of vegetables. When he takes me out to eat, he insists that I finish all of my steak before I am allowed dessert. I’d rather have the meat, anyway, and he’ll only allow it to be served medium rare or bloodier. The requisite green beans, which I normally like, are suspect in the hands of cooks other than my parents. I don’t have to eat those when we go out.
With an exaggerated gulp, he swallows the black gumdrop. “Now you try one,” he says.
I look down at my line of gumdrops and feel my mouth start to water. I honestly have no idea how they’re going to taste. All I know is that they come in bright, unnatural colors and they’re coated in sugar. Selecting a green one (it’s first in the line and these are just the rules), I bring it to my lips.
The sugar is cheap and coarse, and a little cloudy tasting from its time in the bulk bin. Running my tongue over the round edges of the gumdrop, I remove the sugar like a cat. When all that’s left is a goopy nipple of congealed corn syrup, I slice it with my molars and attempt to swallow. It’s like trying to thoroughly chew a Jujubee. Also, it doesn’t taste green at all, not like sweets or mint or the tops of strawberries. It’s kind of spicy but not hot, like how some of the jars in my mother’s spice rack smell when she’s baking.
I pull a face, and my grandfather chuckles. His laugh is a rasp worn by dark liquor and cigarettes since he was 14.
“You don’t like it?” he asks.
I shrug. I don’t know if I like it or not. I don’t like the taste as much as I’d like some other candy, but I’m still eating candy, and that counts for something.
“It’s okay,” I say, and reach for the yellow one. I press down on some grains of sugar that sit on the orange tabletop and lick them off my fingertip. My grandfather takes a drink of highball. My baby sister sleeps in a pumpkin seat rocked by my grandmother. It’s just past summer outside and the cicadas are still whirringly robust out here in the country. I don’t know when my parents will be back, but my grandparents are still young enough and the baseball game broadcast is coming on in a few minutes, and we’ve got to finish all these gumdrops on the table.