The trips to see her mother at the nursing home took Janice past the old candy shop, set a little way off from the other stores and shops of the main drag, with its black-and-white-striped awnings and windows clear as ever. It had been there for as long as she could remember, for as long as her mother could remember. Goldfleck’s Candies and Sweets held the old-world charm, the glass display cases, and the rows of tiny wooden shelves with handmade, handpicked, hand-arranged—hands in just about everything—candies that the Goldflecks made in the back. Licorice, chocolates, turtles, fudges, rock candies, gummies, taffy.
The Goldflecks had a two-crew factory in the back of their store: Mr. and Mrs. Goldfleck, and they had been there every day since even when Janice’s mother could remember.
Janice liked the way the bell tinged when the door opened, liked even more how it shivered like a small canary caught in the winter’s wind. She was Pavlov’s dog, which only brought the question to mind: if Pavlov’s dogs knew they were being trained and didn’t care, was the experiment still valid? She didn’t care, though, how well trained she was. Janice was convinced that if you find good enough chocolate, you can train people to kill for it.
The wooden door slid with oiled precision, and the floorboards groaned of their age. Every home, every store, seemed to match its owner. Goldfleck’s had aged: a once polished shine to the wood was now scraped and dulled, with years of snow dragged in, stomped into the cracks and scrapes until the oak looked more ashen. Her grandmother’s home had been the same, though never had she known the place as anything but old, never known her grandmother as anything but white haired, bent backed, and clutching a cane.
Janice’s apartment, though, was a new construction. Hardwood gleaming, to the point that when the sun dipped in the afternoon and broke through the sliding doors leading to her balcony, she could barely be in the living room without getting a headache, and all the walls were painted a stark white, the cabinets a light blue, the faucets, the sinks, the bathroom, all crisp, all so fresh.
She didn’t belong there. She belonged here.
She found the smell of fresh chocolates better than coffee, and she loved coffee; going into a little café and breathing in the ground beans until a rush of aerated caffeine got her into a tizzy. But chocolate … Chocolate was better. The substance, the physicality of it.
Coffee was the skinny blond who’d built her life on looks and never had to worry about holding down a conversation. Chocolate, at first glance, especially to the untrained eye, never looked as amazing as it tasted. Janice was chocolate. It took time to appreciate, to savor and understand.
“Mr. Goldfleck!” Janice called out as she approached the counter. “How are you?”
The old man was a date in the sun, a splotch of white hair laid over his spotted head, more patches sticking out from his ears. His thick glasses were microscopes, and his face seemed to hold a perpetual confusion. A twist of the lips. Brow always furled. As if to say, “Where am I? What’s going on here?”
Mr. Goldfleck leaned forward. “Eh?”
Janice took a step, picked up her voice. “How. Are. You?”
“Oh, Janice.” His voice choked with age, that mixture of phlegm that won’t go away and vocal cords as worn as the store’s floors. “Janice and her candy. Do you want turtles?”
They were her favorite. Nuts and caramel baked around the chocolate, and that caramel was homemade here, too. She’d tried eating store-made turtles a few years back when in college. Chocolate is chocolate after all; sure, some is better, but it would still get her to where she wanted. She’d spit out the first one after half a bite.
“A mixed bag today. I’ll share with my mom and the other residents.”
He cupped his hand over his ear. “Your mom is the president?”
She remembered to speak up again but found it hard not to cringe when she yelled, “Resident! At Lakewood Nursing Home! Down the street—not far from here!”
“Oh, Lakewood … yes … Maude ’n’ me, we’ll be moving there soon. To the residential part. They say they have games there, a nice community.” A smile parted his lips, but not the playful one she remembered as a child, where Mr. Goldfleck would tease whether she wanted a bag of turtles or the Rice Krispy treat. This smile was a knowing smile, a giving one, a settled one.
Settled like Mom had been before the stroke. At home, peaceful, settled, the place she would stay until death ripped her away. Janice would admonish her mother for talking like that. Mom would laugh it off and smile, but there was always something in the way she smiled, as though her lips had forgotten what joy meant, as though they were hiding something they could not tell.
After the stroke, Janice had wondered if Mom’s smile hadn’t been trying to tell her something. Crystal balls flattened into the thinness of age, still milky, though, still telling of a future Janice didn’t want to see.
Her lips were pinker now, no future left for them to tell.
“But …” Janice swept forward and pressed her hands on the glass case protecting the candy of the day. “But the shop! And you and Mrs. Goldfleck aren’t old at all.”
“It’s hard.” He licked his lips, but little moisture was left behind. “I’ll miss it.”
“But … but, have you, I mean, no, when?”
“End of the month.” He smiled again. More for what had been, surely; not what was to come. “But don’t worry, my grandson … yes, Tom, he’ll be taking over the shop. He’s a baker, you know. Down in Chicago, in the erm … Anyways, he’s going to come here and run the shop. Isn’t that nice?”
She only smiled back and nodded and felt the twist of her chest. “Maybe some extra chocolate today,” she whispered. It felt like giving up, again. Signing the papers to admit another family member.
Janice barely heard the clang of the old register, its flip and spin of numbers, or even the bell when she finally left, clutching bags of candies to her chest. The Walgreens across the street teemed with cars, as always, and though she wanted to glance back at the chocolate shop, she couldn’t. She’d see the wrecking ball, the man in shades and suit pants pointing around the area, holding blueprints for how the Starbucks or gym or apartment complex would look. It would be right on the main drag, a hot commodity. Thirty silver for the soul of a town.
The nursing home had been another of those new constructions. Jake and Son’s, the restaurant—the go-to diner for breakfast, lunch, or dinner—Matt’s Hardware, and Love and Lace Embroidery and Tailoring all fell for Lakewood. They’d been closed for years, and no one as much as blinked when the stores came down. Better than the raccoons taking up residence in the empty buildings. Janice had almost cheered it on, ignored those who said it was destroying the spirit of their town. What good was spirit when the body was dead?
Maurice, the nursing home’s resident tabby and about as lazy as any cat had a right to be, blinked open an eye when the automatic glass doors slid open and let out the avalanche of cold, old-tasting air. She’d usually give Maurice a scratch behind the ear before he would roll away or bat her hand down with a paw, and he waited with head half up, expecting the same game they always played. Janice passed by, and Maurice, maybe happy he didn’t need to exchange pleasantries as usual, went back to sleep.
Age had its own smell, strong enough it could be tasted on the air. It had never bothered her, not like her brother, who couldn’t set foot in the nursing some and had to have Mom wheeled outside. Janice would fluctuate between laughing at him and scolding him for not seeing Mom in what was now her home, her room in the nursing home. He’d told her he’d vomit. Decades of body odor and a body starting to decay, he’d said and gagged.
She brought the candy closer to her chest, even afraid it would melt, but not letting go. Her mom sat in her room, wheelchair, window, face as blank as always and staring out over the courtyard and the statue of an angel. There always seemed to be an angel in nursing homes. Janice had scouted out quite a few before settling here. She could never decide whether the angels were supposed to be a comfort or an advertisement of what was to come.
“Mom,” Janice said softly, slipping into the room like a leaf blowing over tile, settling next in a chair next to her mom in the simple eloquence of a routine done before. “I brought candy.”
Mom blinked a few times, and the left side of her face sagged. “You’re a nice girl.”
“What kind do you want? Turtles might be too tough with your teeth. They’re soft, but the nuts aren’t. What about a truffle? Those were always your favorite.”
Janice didn’t have kids and had never babysat that often. One of her friends from high school had babysat every day, sometimes for her own siblings, sometimes for other families. Janice would cringe at the thought. Little things that need constant attention. She was a cat person, not a dog person, and children were dogs on uppers. So she didn’t know how to act after her mom had a stroke and needed constant care. She was given a child without the fun part that went into making it. She didn’t know what to do. The only solace was knowing that maybe no one did, whether gifted a bawling baby or stroke-stricken parent.
Janice learned, eventually, the way she had to drip her voice in honey-soaked drops to cajole her mother to do simple tasks. Soft tones, quiet but loud enough to be heard. Movements easy, flowing, nothing too fast or too sharp. Sheets floating down onto a bed, not whipping them around. Even how she dressed changed. Janice covered up the bits of pudge she found she could never part with, but with her mom, it was different; there were more layers to stave off Lakewood’s cold, more loose-fitting sweats and comfy shoes. Lakewood could seep into the bones, turn a young woman old, and she’d wonder, after leaving and wanting to rip off her clothes, if it eventually got to the nurses and staff, if they didn’t go home and sit in wheelchairs by windows and wait for their next shift.
“A who?” Mom asked, trying to lift her head.
“Who, who,” Janice parroted back. She smiled and bit back her lower lip. “Not a who, who, a truffle.” She opened one of the bags and pulled it out. “Candy. Chocolate. Yummy.”
Mom’s wrinkled, spotted hand reached, shaking as it grabbed the chocolate. “Thank you, dear.”
They ate in the never quiet of Lakewood, where the moans from the patients finally getting ready to escape rattled. Janice stared down at the half-eaten turtle in her fingers, the chocolate smeared on a fingernail and caramel dripping from a pecan. “You know, the Goldflecks are going to be moving in here. Their grandson is coming to take over the shop.”
“Do you know where Billy is?”
“Home. He’s home, Mom. Maybe he’ll come by tomorrow.”
“He’s a good boy. He and Jackie are having a baby. I’m going to be a grandma.”
Bill and Jackie divorced five years ago, and Ryder was twelve years old. Janice nodded.
Mom looked at her and smiled. Eyes glossed in milky white; that damned crystal ball had moved, and it said so much, too much. For a moment, her face changed. Her eyes seemed to know, as if years of memories had swept over her and carried her someplace she didn’t want to be, was too scared to see. And then, it passed, as it always did, and the smile faded.
“I have a daughter, too. She comes and visits every day. She brings candy. Would you like some chocolate?”
Janice placed the half-eaten turtle back in the bag and hugged them tight against her. “No. No chocolate for me today.”