The Sugar Drop Candy Shop

by Mark on February 4, 2010

The J-Train rumbled below, vibrating the floors and rattling a chorus line of peanut clusters until they danced on the white-papered shelves.  Hilda Schmidt’s bulky frame bulged through her apron as she spit a wad of chocolate into the sink.  “You idiot!  There’s too much liquor in these rum balls.”

A balding candy maker with a thin mustache dusted a clear plate with powdered sugar.  Sunken cheeks implied he sampled far less of the profits than his sister. With the flair of a florist he arranged an assortment of russet treats into a sweet bouquet.

“Are you deaf, Max?  There’s too much god damn rum in these chocolates.”

“Hilda, are you concerned about the taste, or my use of your private liquor supply?”

“You know brother; I liked you better as a mourning sad sack than a love sick puppy.”

“Whatever.”  Max straightened his bow tie in the reflection of the display case.

Hilda marched over to her brother.  “That coffee franchise company called again.”

“Yeah.  Did you tell them our customers don’t have time to wait for a cappuccino?”

“You know what they want, stupid.”

“I know what they want to do, but we’re not for sale . . .”

The Schmidt family had imported their recipes for sweet sensations from Vienna during the Roaring 20’s, opening The Sugar Drop Candy Shop next to a subway entrance near Wall Street.  Stockbrokers gorged themselves with bonbons during bull and bear markets.  Generations of the family had lived in the second story flat.   They spent most of their waking hours creating mouth-watering treats for harried consumers.

The bells jingled and Max turned toward the door.  A petite figure, cloaked in a long wool coat and sporting a beret with a lime tropical feather, stood at the entrance.  Just a hint of gray laced her short brown hair.  Her deep-dimpled smile pierced through freckled cheeks.

“Well good afternoon, Mr. Schmidt.”  Closing her eyes, she tipped her head back, took a long sniff and then sighed.  “I envy you smelling all of these delightful treats all day.”

“Tell her we sell them, not smell them.”

“Don’t mind my sister.  How can I help my favorite chocolate connoisseur?”

“Hmm . . . I’ll let you tempt my taste buds.”

Max presented his sugar-dusted plate with the flamboyance of a maître d’.

“Close your eyes.”

She complied with a grin as he picked up a chocolate-covered cherry by the stem and placed it on her tongue.  After biting into it she moaned, and then giggled, as red and brown syrup oozed from her lips.  Max grabbed a napkin from a dispenser on the counter and then gently dabbed her chin.

“You have a wonderful touch, Mr. Schmidt.  I also love your chocolates.  Can you wrap a half-pound with a bow?

“A present!”  Max’s chin slumped.  “For who?”

“For me!  I may need some napkins.  I am pretty much a slob.”

“Pretty . . . yes.”  Max’s cheeks burned.

She paid him.  “Your sweet, Mr. Schmidt.  Until tomorrow.”

“Until tomorrow.”  The bell jingled as she left.

“You have a wonderful touch, Mr. Schmidt!  You’re sweet, Mr. Schmidt!”  Hilda cackled as she jerked taffy from an extruder.

Max peered out the door, smiled and then turned to his sister.  “Not even you could spoil this moment.”

“I’m surprised, lover boy.  You’re ending a pretty brief mourning period.”

“Brief!  It’s been over five years.”

She pulled out a large knife and attacked the taffy.  “I never thought we’d keep this place – so close to where it happened.”

The moment was spoiled.  He glanced over to the decorating utensils by the kitchen.  For a moment he could see his beloved Sarah standing by the pot, stirring roasted nuts into the melted chocolate.  Her eyes sparkled, like sugar drops.

“We’re not selling!”

“Please Max, I don’t want to end up in an early grave, like Mama and Papa, shaking and baking in this rat hole.”

“I’ll buy your share.  Go live with Aunt Kirsten in Pensacola.”

She pounded the knife so hard it stuck into the chopping block.  “I don’t want your peanuts when we can split over a million bucks.”

Max shuddered as Hilda yanked the blade free.  He was accustomed to her edgy nature, but the cycles of fury seemed to shake the building more than the trains.  He turned away and wiped the counter.

“We’re not selling.”

His favorite customer made more frequent visits.  The chocolate tasting and cozier conversations grew cozier.  Eventually, Max found the courage to ask her name.

“Bridget — Bridget Steinel.  But, you can call me,  ‘Breeze’.

“Steinel, where’s your family from?

“Mr. Schmidt . . .”

“Max . . . please call me Max.”

She beamed.  “Well, Max, we’ll need a longer conversation for this, and you’re always so busy.”

“Not on Sunday.”  He stopped a moment to glance back at Hilda.  Her glare heaved daggers from behind a fudge pan.  “I mean . . . Breeze, will you join me for a stroll along South Street on Sunday?

She reached up and brushed flour off his collar.  “Max, I have been waiting a long time for you to ask.  Yes, of course.  Where will we meet?”

He finally breathed.  “Here, in front of the shop at 1:00?”

“How about noon?”

“Settled!”  He walked her to the door and continued gazing until she melted into the crowds.

“Breeze!  Seems appropriate — I hear the wind whistling between her ears.”

Max ignored his sister and washed the tasting plate.

“Sunday – isn’t that the day we visit the graves of our parents and your poor wife?”

“I’ll visit them another Sunday.”

Hilda slammed the pans together like cymbals.  “No you won’t.  I see it coming, again.  You’ll start dating that floozy every Sunday, leaving me to weed around the tombstones by myself.”

“She’s not a floozy.”

His sister marched toward him, wielding a rolling pin.

“You’ve always plotted to get rid of me.  I know it.  You’ll force me to Pensacola, sell this place and steal my millions — just to blow it all on some uptown babe.”

“We’re not selling.”

Hilda’s face erupted into a bright red rage.  She raised the rolling pin into a high arch and held it.    Max retreated a few steps, gazing into her blazing eyes, and then recalled a cold flash from their youth.  Neighborhood kids, constantly teasing Hilda about her weight, – one day pushing her over the edge.  Somehow, she snatched their calico cat.  Holding it high, like a trophy, Hilda’s eyes flamed.  Max remembered the screams, and his horror, as she snapped its neck and flung the carcass at her tormenters.

The memory motivated him to dive behind the counter just an instant before she heaved the pin at his head.  It somersaulted across the room and slammed into the case.   The display glass exploded, showering the truffles and mocha creams with crystal shards.  Max kept low, waiting for her to toss a knife or pot, but the assault was over.   Hilda wailed as she stomped up the steps to their apartment.   Max’s hand shook as he brushed glass from his hair.  Beyond the violence, Hilda’s neurosis troubled him.  Like a barometer, it usually forecasted miserable weather for the Schmidts.

Sunday morning did not arrive fast enough for Max.  Hilda turned sullen and the tense silence bothered him more than the arguments.  He paced the back and forth in front of the repaired display case.  Was five years enough time to mourn the violent death of someone you dearly loved?  God how he missed the closeness and trust.  The doorbell jingled.  There stood Breeze in a pastel jumpsuit with a matching cap adorned with her trademark feather.  She grabbed his hand as they sauntered down Canal Street toward the waterfront.

* * * *

Hilda’s prediction came true.  Breeze and Max began to spend every Sunday and most evenings together.  He returned one sunset to find his sister sitting in a darkened booth.

“That was a long walk.”

“It was a glorious walk.  I hope the cemetery weeds were manageable.”

Hilda’s eyes narrowed into slits.  “You mock me and all of our family, including your dead wife.”

“Spare me, sister.  I saw you lurking by a concession stand near the fish market.”

“It’s a public place.  Such a shame we have so little time to enjoy it working in this sweat shop.”

Max approached Hilda, but still kept some distance from her swing radius.  “Breeze’s family is from Frankfurt.  They owned wineries along the Rhine before the war.”

“Sehr gut!  We can all ‘sprechense Deutsche’ at family reunions.”

“No Hilda, I meant we have a lot in common.  You’ll really like her.”

“Sure brother . . . sure.  We’ll all get real cozy in that tiny apartment – like last time.”  Hilda leaped up and approached him, jabbing her pudgy fingers into his chest.  “Like last time, your lovely spouse will quickly tire of me.”

Max smelled her breath and suspected tomorrow’s rum balls would be short ingredients.  “Your imagination’s moving pretty fast.”

“Not fast enough, because I know you’re going to plot on how to get rid of me, how to steal the business and how to rob me of my money.”

Max backed into a chair, and like a lion tamer, he put it between them only for her to bat it away.  “Hilda, I just want you to get to know her.”

“Well, she’ll get to know me all right.  Your little Breezy will regret ever walking into our shop.”

With that she staggered out the door and swayed down the street.  Max wasn’t sorry that the rest of the news would have to wait until morning.

* * * *

Hilda sat in a booth, leaning on her elbows, cradling a cup of coffee.  She picked up a thick document and waved it at her brother.

“Last chance.  Sell this place and we’ll split a fortune.  I’ll head for Florida.  You and Breezy can go to hell.”

Max remained behind the counter, ready to duck.  “We’ve got an offer for you to consider.”

“We?”

The doorbell announced Breeze’s arrival.  “Good morning Hilda.”  She floated over and pecked Max’s cheek.  “Morning.”

He blushed and grabbed her hand.  “I was just presenting our proposal.”

His sister slurped some coffee and burped.  “I’m breathless.”

Max cleared his throat.  “If Breeze and I combine our savings, and take a loan from her parents, we can offer you $250,000 for your share of the shop.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

He took a step forward as Breeze squeezed his hand.  “Our accountant says it’s a fair price, given the sales and earnings.”

“Bullshit.”  She smacked the table, splashing coffee into the air.  “We have a million and a half offer to rid us of this rat hole.  I want $750,000.”

“That’s okay, sis.  You can pull taffy for another decade or two.”
Breeze tugged his arm.  “Let me ask Mom and Dad.  Maybe we can sweeten the offer.”

“Let me go with you.”

She kissed him.  “No, I’ll take the sub.  It’s just up to 57th Street.  I’ll be back in a couple hours.”  Breeze disappeared down the subway steps.

Hilda stood up and then stormed to the door, still wearing her apron.  “I’ve got an errand to run.”  The door bells rattled behind her.

Max went to the sink and began scrubbing some pans.  Silence was a welcomed treat after a Breeze visit.  He grinned, imagining future holidays with the trio sharing a turkey.  Shaking his head – no way will he allow Breeze near to Hilda with a carving knife.  “I’ve got an errand to run.” Alarms began buzzing in the back of his brain.  Those words jolted a long buried memory.   Five years earlier, Hilda followed his beloved Sarah out the door.  “I’ve got an errand to run.”  A river of dread poured into his veins.

“Oh my God!”

Max bolted out the door and leaped down the subway, the ties of his chocolate-stained apron flapping behind.  Stumbling at the landing, bumping into the masses escaping the sweltering underground, his thoughts briefly flashed back to the store.  Its open door would invite sweet-lovers and vandals to gorge themselves on toffee and the cash drawer.  No matter — he needed to stop his sister.  It was all clear.  Years earlier, his precious wife had fallen in front of a train soon after Hilda pursued her.  Witnesses claimed she was pushed.  No arrests.

The turnstiles were ahead.  No tokens!  Max hurdled them, pulling a calf muscle.  This attracted the wrath of a transit cop who tried to tackle him, but only managed to tear-off his apron.  Max limped into the crowd near the platform, frantically searching for Breeze’s beret and feather.  Commuters closed in from all sides, pushing him forward.

The train roared into the station.  Above the clatter a dreadful scream shrilled from the platform.  The crowd gasped and moved back, knocking Max down.  He scratched and clawed his way to his feet only to be buffeted by the elbows and shoulders of escaping commuters.  Breaking through the crowd, he shuffled through discarded newspapers and crushed coffee cups before arriving at a graffiti-adorned subway car.  A priest kneeled and made the sign-of-the cross.  Police and rescue workers converged on a spot and peered under the wheels.  Max pushed himself forward, finding that neither the injured or good leg wanted to move.  Then he saw it.  Dropping to one knee, he scooped up Breeze’s flattened beret.  Hot tears seared his cheeks as Max stroked its crushed feather.

Nearby, a conductor spoke to a rescue worker.

“Did she jump?”

“Not sure.  One witness caught a last glimpse of her.  Said she looked surprised and screamed like a banshee.  Doesn’t sound like a jumper to me.”

The conductor checked his watch.  “We gotta clean this mess up.”

The rescue worker wiped his brow.  “Can you back this thing up?”

“We’re going forward.  There are more cars ahead than behind.”

Max clutched the beret in his fists as hot tears streamed down his cheeks.  Each car slowly clicked by until the last one rolled into the tunnel.  Max and the priest looked into the blood-stained tracks.  The priest threw up.  Max fainted.

* * * *

The subway churned below, rattling the empty display case.  Max loaded an antique grater into a box of utensils and sighed.  His Aunt Kirsten had refused to use the electric grinders and hand ground large chocolate bars until arthritic finders forced her to retire.  He taped the package and piled it with other boxes of sugar, pans and plates, stacked near the door.  Seventy-five years of sweet and sour memories melted in front of him.  The Sugar Drop Candy Shop was moving Uptown, a block from Central Park.

“Max, there’s too much liquor in these rum balls.”

He turned toward the kitchen and smiled.  “Melt them and we’ll mix it with our coffee tonight.”

She drew nearer and they kissed, lingering in an embrace for moment.

“Breeze, I was so afraid it was you on those tracks.”

“My poor Max.  It’s good we’re moving after you lost two loved ones in that horrible tunnel.”

Max bit his lip and took a deep breath.  “Honey, I still can’t figure out how your beret ended up so close to the tracks.”

She tightened her hug.  “Maxy, I told you.  As I jumped on an earlier train, the crowd knocked it off.  Thank you for finding it.”

“So, you didn’t see Hilda.”

“No.”  She kissed him.  “We must’ve just missed each other.”

He stroked her hair.  “I guess a shop by the Park will be a nice change.”

Breeze looked at her watch.  “We’re late!  Remember, in twenty minutes we have to be at our lawyers to finalize the sale and finish executing Hilda’s estate.  If we catch the 10:45, we’ll make it.”

Max froze a moment before forcing a smile.  “If it’s all the same to you, let’s take a cab.”

The End

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