THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Toffee

by by Edward Friedman

There were three things: the first was standing in the ocean up to his shoulders and the water was warm and the deep purple sky and deep black water ran together ahead of them in an invisible horizon and Daniel said “Don’t you get the feeling that something terrible is about to happen?”

The next was three weeks later in a little Twin Otter plane. He looked out the window and down on bright green foothills at the periphery of the valley. The hills were terraced for growing rice and from the plane the terracing looked like the contour lines of a topographic map, stretched and inflated into life. They wore cotton balls in their ears, which the flight attendant had handed around at the beginning of the flight along with a basket of also-little caramel candies. Still the roar of the engines and their propellers filled the cabin and his head, so when they landed in the dusty airport the hum of the luggage truck sounded delicate and the noise from the abutting road seemed further away than it was.

Finally, another week after that came the third.

As the jeep wound through the early sunset, up the asphalt strewn with switchbacks, he thought about his father’s death—the early return home; a month spent with his aunt and cousins in their little corner of Colorado. Her: quiet, sad, and loving. Little towheaded Zeke and Hannah didn’t know what to do. He was up crying one night and Hannah came downstairs in pajamas and sat on the couch beside him and wrapped him up in her arms, and they sat there together while he cried. Long walks alone and other things alone.

As the sun sank through the gauzy air over the flat expanse behind them, the light got oranger and softer and the green of the overhanging jungle went purple while the foliage thinned. Halfway up the hillside or mountain, one of the plump older women—she sat at the passenger door of the front seat—began to vomit out the window, pulling him back down into the car. Not long after, the driver stopped at a cluster of buildings on the roadside to hose down the side panel.

They ordered tea at one of the places and stood by the back of their jeep to drink it and smoke a cigarette. Flecks of greenish rice swam past their feet in the hose’s runoff. He went to pay for the tea and buy two pieces of toffee. The young proprietress smiled and gave him the toffee for free. Her face was semi-round with light, smooth skin, cheekbones high under bright brown eyes. He smiled back, feeling the best he’d felt in days, and pocketed one of the toffees.

Once in the mountains, the human light became brighter than the sky. The jeep wound through towns teetering on the hillside. It stopped to pick up more passengers who would climb into the back with them and squeeze along the facing benches, pushing his and Daniel’s ribs and upper arms into the back of the second row seat. He fingered the toffee in his pants with his backpack in his lap.

They arrived in the town, shouldered their bags and asked for directions. It was the first night of the festival of lights. Children and their parents stood with sparklers in the streets laughing and screaming and shooting tiny flames into the smoky night. The meandering cobbled roads led uphill with concrete facades looming on either side, trapping the smoke and sulfur. Packs of teenagers ran by in both directions, setting off fireworks that exploded with the sound of a gunshot. Daniel cursed each time.

They found a place to stay and were tired enough to not eat. He closed his eyes and listened to the booms while Daniel breathed heavily with his mouth and shuddered in his sleep.

Nothing terrible happened, really. He left the candy in his pocket and it melted into the seam. Prodding for a quarter or pen, he found it the following spring—wrapper long gone and dusted with lint—and picked at it while thinking about the girl from the store.