Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The wages of sin

Small Potatoes by Betty Bell


Betty Bell

The other day at the market, I turned up Aisle 7 prepared to choose one cereal from the 188 offerings. The candy display came first, but candy wasn't on my list, so I gave it only a cursory look. Even so, the Snickers stood out as they always do, and then next to the Snickers were a bunch of Mounds bars, an uncommon sight these days when they have to compete for shelf space against spritzier offerings, so they caught my attention. The "Mounds" splayed across the familiar swath of white summoned the time machine I've ridden before, the one that whisks me up and sets me down in my year 10, the year I recorded a memorable experience with Mounds. I've taken that time trip more than a few times, ready or not, and if you have a few minutes or aren't already late for an appointment, you're invited to come along.

The background for this trip is my genetic craving for chocolate passed along by my mother. Mother took care of her own craving by stashing 5-cent candy bars all over the house. My two younger sisters and I knew, through osmosis I guess, because I don't remember being coached, the strict protocol about mom's stashes was to never let on that such a thing existed. Occasionally, if, for instance, we spied the corner of a Hershey bar sticking out from under the stack of grocery sacks in the pantry, we'd toe it back without a word. And protocol adherence paid off because Mom saw to it that we had a reasonable if not extravagant supply of licorice and jaw-breakers and such. Just not the nickel stuff, not the Hersheys and Oh Henrys and especially Mounds, the candy she liked best.

One day, on a typical blistering Omaha summer afternoon when my sisters were out in the hollyhock patch seeing who could get the most bees in one jar, because trying to get one more bee in a jar already buzzing with half a dozen gave you goose bumps that cooled you off better than air conditioning—anyway, on that afternoon I sneaked off to hunt for a stash. And I struck gold—candy—when I looked in the top drawer in the china cabinet where we kept the holiday silver, and lo, there was a Mounds. Surreptitiously, I guess, I took it to my room, sprawled belly-down on the bed, and unwrapped it.

The candy didn't have the mouth-watering brown look I expected; rather, it was faded and washed-out looking, but I wasn't after beauty so I picked up half, listened to make sure my sisters were still squealing away in the hollyhocks, and took a bite. Heavenly.

I propped my chin on my hand and devoted about 10 seconds pondering my sin, practicing how to say my Saturday confession ... "Bless me Father for I have sinned, I ate my mother's candy"... nope ... "Father, I stole my mother's candy ... "

I swallowed the last of the bite, making those little sucking sounds you make when you're swirling around something really good, and moved my hand to the Mounds for another bite. Something caught my eye. I blinked and looked closer. It sure looked like pieces of the coconut were moving. I double-blinked and looked again. Yes, the coconut was moving.

"Dear sweet baby Jesus in heaven! Those are maggots!"

My stomachache was instant and severe, and then it roiled up almost immediately in pre-heave ripples. I couldn't keep from picturing all the maggots that must have slid down whole, wigglies now curled up in the bottom of my stomach churning out baby wigglies like a stream of albino snakes.

For the next couple of days, eons in kid-world, I kept rubbing my belly to check for a thickening mass, and yes ... of course ... in the bathroom I peered into the bowl and squinted at brown things looking for white things. It was horrible never to get a glimpse of a white thing—that meant the maggots were still down there, still churning out little ones.

I'm sure I went to confession that Saturday, and I'm sure I confessed my theft with my usual feeling of dreading the confession but craving the forgiveness. Probably Father gave me 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys to say as penance, and when I pulled back the curtain of the dark confessional and blinked in the light bright world, it'd have been with serene faith that my slate was clean. It's only the maggots that never let it go.

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