CANDY CANE MANDY • by Melanie Bell

Pull ropes from red and white, twist, stick on wax paper-covered pans. Inhale air that’s hot, sickly sweet, and still smells a bit like horse.

“They’re going to love your candy canes this year,” says Mom with her pin-up girl smile. “Things taste better with the touch of a human hand.”

I chuck another stick on the wax. “Can’t I make pretzels instead?” Or get back to that story I’m writing in my room, which is more fun than making candy canes even though I know it’s stupid.

“Pretzels, what a great idea!” She leaves the spoon in her chocolate, grabs a paper and pen from the wall to make a list. She’s nailed little notepads to every wall in Baking Warehouse Hell to capture stray ideas. Cara Walters, daughter of three generations of farm women, married a farmer and when he ran off leaving a 7-year-old Prissy Princess (Molly) and a 3-year-old King-of-the-Hill tomboy (me), she sold the animals and said “Screw it, I’m making candy,” hired a carpenter, and the barn became a kiln. Sometimes I wonder where Dad ended up. Probably camping somewhere, laughing at us.

***

I walk across the Around the World Winter Carnival, past booths selling food from Zimbabwe, Australia, Switzerland. There are plastic-wrapped hard candies in my purse ‘cause I’m a hypocrite that way. They were throwing them out at the parade and I caught some. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Jeff on the library float. He volunteers with the kids there, but maybe he was sick, or being nobler than me and helping someone else. I suck on a mint. Better finish these crap candies before Mom sees them. I spot the girl with the cheek scar, a senior at my high school. All black getups and Michael Jackson skin so you notice her. No one would call her a slut, but she’s kind of hot and people know it. She’s sitting behind the fishing game booth, calling “Brave the wilderness and catch some fish! Brave the bears and crocodiles and reel yourself a prize catch!” I’ve got twenty bucks to spend. I catch my breath, walk up.

***

“Hey, you! You Molly Cain’s sister?”

“Yeah.” Her name’s the one people know.

“Any plans for the holiday break?” she asks.

“Just helping Mom. You?” I swallow as I ask, survey her scar and wonder if that’s rude and what it’s from.

“I’m working at Arby’s, but my real job is writing. Don’t tell my boss.” She hands me a plastic pole. “Let’s see what you can catch.”

“I write too,” I say. Then I remember to cast the line.

“Really?” She grins. “Have you sent anything out?”

“What, like to magazines?”

“Yeah, like that.”

“What the hell would I write on a cover letter? ‘Hi, I wrote this thing, please publish it’?”

“Better leave out the ‘please publish it,’” she laughs. I pull up a plastic bag. Inside, more candy. “Seriously,” she regards me with a nymph’s half-smile. “Send them out there. Share your story with the world.”

A guy shoves in front of me: “Outta the way, kid, I want some fish!”

The scar girl, the writer, takes his money and hands him a plastic rod. “Take care, you!” she calls as I run away embarrassed and almost proud. She bellows to the audience: “Come one, come all, to the Fishing Hole! Brave the wilderness and catch yourself some fish!” I go on the coaster that day and don’t even barf.

***

I walk into the underworld that used to be our barn. Mom found a pretzel recipe so of course I have to make them. Actually I don’t. I could always run away. But I kind of hate the look on her face even when a batch is burnt or doesn’t sell. As Molly dusts her truffles in powdered sugar, I roll and twist my dough. “I bought you a new pair of oven mitts,” says Mom. “I’m sorry they’re pink, I know you hate pink, but that’s what was on sale.” She passes them across her bowls of glaze in lurid shades. They’re very pink. My old mitts are worn out. I put the new ones on and put the pretzels in an oven. I like the shapes of pretzels, their ordered curls like snakes when it rains. I think of books, of Jeff, of an idea.

“Thanks, Mom,” I say. Suddenly, transforming myself seems fun. Even if the transformation is a lame one. Like my mother, I can make things up. I can pick out something new to do and do it. These are my Oven Mitts of Awesome Power.

***

I come to school with a tub of pretzels to pass out at lunch. Mom assigned me to taste-test my best on a potential market so I’m walking around with a funny-looking container, but also briefly popular. I hand the fattest one to Jeff and lean over: “Hey, I’m thinking of, uh . . . volunteering at the library.”

“Really?” He looks like my mom when a batch just turned out perfect.

“Yeah. What better training for a writer?” I notice his dimples, like the curl in a perfect candy cane.

“You want to write books?”

I nod.

“The kids’ll be happy,” he says. “Maybe you can teach them to make up stories. I’m not very creative like that.” The scarred writer walks across my peripheral vision. I raise my water bottle in a silent toast to pretzels and the library reading program.

***

Mom’s story is sickly sweet, but there are other stories too. Like the short story I finally finished, the library kids who aren’t so bad, or the first rejection letter I framed and stuck to my wall as a badge of courage. I come into my room smelling like pretzel batter, candy canes, and truffles. The mirror shows my mother, my father, my sister, myself.


Melanie Bell teaches writing at Academy of Art University in San Francisco and Enneagram personality workshops through Berghoef & Bell Innovations. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and has written for various publications including Autostraddle, xoJane, The Fiddlehead, Grain, and CV2.


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