Upon Leaving the Candy Factory
by Aaron Polson
Times are tough all over. The candy factory has plenty of problems. Little ones, like Leonard’s crush on the woman who works the pill hopper in the Sour Tart room, are only a problem for one person, Leonard. The candy factory has big problems, too, like the zombies who shovel fine sugar in the powder room. Not that the zombies are a problem; it’s that the candy factory had to hire them in the first place.
“They wear breathing masks and goggles,” Leonard tells his buddy Rabbit in the locker room after their shift. “Full bio hazard suits, too.”
Rabbit, who has wide front teeth and ears like stretched gum, nods. “Old joke, man. I’ve heard that already. Zombies? Gotta be a joke.”
“For real,” Leonard says, nodding. Each time he nods, his thick-framed glasses slide down his nose. The lenses are scratched, but Leonard doesn’t mind. Besides, no one is making glasses anymore. “Herm over in shipping told me so.”
“Herm’s full of shit, and you’re gullible. Zombies. Ha. But Herm told me something else. Maybe you can verify for me,” Rabbit says. They call him Rabbit because of the tattoo of Bugs Bunny on his left calf, not the stretched-out ears or buck teeth. His nose twitches a little more than most, too, but that’s just a coincidence. “He told me about Sour Tart Girl.”
This is where Leonard’s problem becomes a Problem. Rabbit can be a real jerk, especially to a guy like Leonard, someone who’s prone to go red and stutter when he’s nervous. For example:
“I d-don’t know w-what you mean.”
“Sour Tart girl. The one with a brown bun under her hair net. Blue eyes. Man up, fella. It’s not like there’s much competition around here.” Rabbit grins, big teeth shiny and white. “Talk to her already.”
But Leonard isn’t the type of guy who talks first. He’s the type of guy who retreats behind a sunburst of pink skin and shy, shuffling feet. He’s the type of guy who watches Sour Tart Girl each time he delivers another pallet of Sour Tart wrappers with the forklift. There are two thousand wrappers per box and fifty boxes per pallet. Sometimes, Leonard tries to imagine who, exactly, eats all that candy, but mostly he just watches Sour Tart Girl as she scoops day-glow candy from the bin, climbs a short ladder, and dumps it into the hopper.
No, Leonard doesn’t talk first. She does.
It takes a moment for her voice to cut through Leonard’s fog.
“I said, hey. You, on the forklift.”
“Thanks,” she says.
Leonard’s tongue swells and fills his mouth. All he can do is nod.
Sour Tart Girl’s eyes are blue, bright like the blue Sour Tart candies. She wears the same off-white smock as the rest of the workers in the candy factory, all of them except the zombies in the powder room. Even before there were zombies, the powder room workers wore yellow bio hazard suits.
“That fine powdery sugar can kill, man. Sucked right into your lungs,” Rabbit told Leonard once.
The Sour Tarts are all bright: blue, orange, green, yellow, red…the walls and floors and machines of the factory are either grey or dark grey: metal-grey, concrete grey, the dull, painted-on grey of a battleship hull. Outside, the rest of the world is either grey or brown, and Leonard wonders where they find greens and oranges for the candy. He thinks about it in the afternoon, when his shift is over and he walks eleven blocks to his apartment. But inside the factory, there is only grey.
Sour Tart Girl has a name, and on the third day after saying “hey,” she tells Leonard it’s Brittany, but he can call her Brit.
“And you are?”
He twists the shiny black knob of the forklift’s gear shift. He doesn’t want to look, because the blue of her eyes is really blue, so sharp and crisp it might cut him if he looks. “Leonard,” he mutters.
“Nice to meet you, Leonard.”
With Leonard being Leonard, it continues like this for a week more, even though Rabbit knows and gives Leonard “shit” every day in the locker room.
“Just do it, man.”
Rabbit rolls his eyes. “Chat with her. Hold on the conversation. Ask her for a walk. Something. You think any of us want to stay here, in the factory?”
So the next day, when Brit says, “Hey,” Leonard says, “They’re zombies, you know.”
The words sound silly coming out of his mouth. He figures of course she knows. Everybody knows. Everybody except Rabbit, but he’s probably just being a jerk. The economy is bad, after all. Zombies work for cheap. His hand presses hard on the black knob of the forklift gear shift, presses hard enough his fingers start to feel numb. Maybe if he presses hard enough, he can vanish. Either that or break off the black knob and swallow it so it will clog his trachea and he’ll choke and die. Sometimes he feels like dying, his chest hurts so much when he looks at Brit.
Brit laughs. “Zombies?”
Leonard tries to smile.
“I-in the p-powder room.”
“The guys in bio suits?”
Her blue eyes pick him to pieces, tiny scraps like bread for the birds. Then she smiles. “That’s strange, isn’t it? I mean, zombies. Strange.” She says strange as though that’s all it is, strange, as though strange explained it all: her blue eyes, the grey of the world, the way they keep making candy even though no one buys candy anymore. There’s no place to buy candy if you wanted. At least not in the city.
He drives away without saying anything else.
Things go sour for Leonard early the next week. Sour Tart Girl — Brit — is missing. He drives his forklift through the Sour Tart room even without a pallet load of new wrappers, just looking for her. Instead of blue eyes, the substitute is old and fat and wrinkled, and Leonard feels pretty certain her eyes are black, but the wrinkles cave in so much he can hardly tell if she has eyes at all. He nearly drives the forklift into a support beam, and all the eyes in the Sour Tart room lock onto him.
When he walks home, he tries to imagine where Brit lives. He tries to think of a place where blue eyes would be okay, would be normal. His foot slips into a puddle of mud, and pale brown specks cover the steel toes of his black boots.
Two days later, Rabbit tells him what happened to Brit.
“She’s been fired,” he says, even though she hasn’t. Leonard doesn’t know this at first, he just climbs onto his forklift and drives to the dock for a pallet of boxes packed with Sour Tart wrappers. Herm’s there, shriveled and small like a piece of fruit lost under a kitchen table for a week, back when you could buy fresh fruit in the city. Herm tells him.
“That girl…the one from the Sour Tart room you have a crush on. Blue eyes. She quit about a week ago.”
“Said she’d had it. Left me with this.” Herm holds a wrinkled scrap of candy wrapper toward Leonard. The back of the wrapper is white and scribbled on with black ink; the other side is silver and shiny, like a tiny bit of aluminum foil.
When Leonard walks through the grey streets to Brit’s apartment, he avoids the puddles to keep his black, steel-toed boots clean. Other men, some of the workers from the candy factory, trudge along with him, cloaked in drab jackets and shaded with tight-fitting stocking caps. It’s payday, so most of them hold their paper bank promises in front of them like a shield. Leonard thinks about his paycheck and wonders what Brit will do without a job. His paychecks wait in a neat stack on his table at home, held in place by a heavy glass paperweight with a tiny blue flower trapped inside. When the stack grows tall enough, maybe he’ll find a house in the country, somewhere away from grey. Somewhere with blue flowers like the trapped summer petals in his paperweight.
He knocks. Her door opens, and Leonard blushes.
He wants to say something meaningful. Something significant. “I-I just wanted to say h-hi,” is all he musters.
“Hey,” she says.
Leonard tries to smile. He doesn’t move.
“Something else?” Brit’s blue eyes blink.
“Yeah, I quit. It just felt meaningless, anymore. I checked those suits in the powder room. Pulled a mask off one of those guys. Zombies. You were right.” She rolls her eyes like it’s a big deal, like it is one of the biggest deals in the whole world. Her arms fold across her chest.
Leonard doesn’t care about being right. He cares about being near Brit. He cares about her blue eyes and the way she smiles, even though she isn’t smiling right now. He likes the smell of Brit away from the candy factory, too, fresh grass and clean water, even though the smell of fresh grass is a memory and as such bent by his brain. He cares about standing there, close to the fresh grass and water smell.
“I pulled off one of the masks, and it was so sad.”
As Leonard walks home, he hears Brit’s voice saying the word sad. He hears it in his sleep that night, over and over, like a beautiful song about a dead lover. Sad.
“Bullshit they’re zombies,” Rabbit says when Leonard tells him. “I know what Herm said, and Herm’s full of shit. I thought you gave up on that bullshit joke.”
What Leonard wants to say is Brit told him the same thing. Brit pulled off one of the masks. She saw it. But what he says is, “Y-you’re probably r-right.”
Leonard doesn’t plan on following a zombie after his shift that day, it just sort of happens. The zombies use a different door than the rest of the candy factory employees. Leonard waits outside, in the empty lot behind the factory, kicking at the tufts of weeds growing through cracks in the grey pavement. He thinks about the word “weed” and how it’s an ugly word and the plants probably don’t think of themselves as weeds. A whole group of zombies stumble out of the door together, Leonard picks one and follows. The zombie is slow of wits and feet, so Leonard doesn’t have to try hard to keep pace. It’s a big zombie, ashen-skinned and broad in the shoulders. He follows the thing through the streets, past the neighborhoods with grey apartment buildings.
Leonard has to force his legs to keep moving because the zombie turns right through a tall limestone gate marking the cemetery. The place smells nice enough, wet and grass-like, almost enough to remind him of Brit’s smell, but there’s a vibe, too. Maybe it’s another smell, really subtle. Maybe it’s the way the trees hunch over, limbs tilted and crooked like broken arms, black and gnarled. Maybe it’s because Leonard has always felt uneasy in cemeteries even though he isn’t stupid and knows dead is dead. Except for the zombies.
He follows the zombie down one of the gravel drives toward a grey stone mausoleum, only this mausoleum isn’t just grey — a layer of moss has walked up the sides like a dark green five o’clock shadow. The doorway looks black like the eyes of Brit’s replacement, but when Leonard gets closer, he can see inside. The walls are lined with zombies, some wearing coveralls from an auto mechanic’s shop, one in a smock from a discount chain that’s been closed for years, another with a welder’s mask over its face. They all have the same, slack-mouthed frown. Sad. They all have the same ashen skin, peeling in places. The whole zombie routine. The one in coveralls glances at Leonard and mumbles, but the rest don’t flinch.
The candy factory zombie shuffles forward, toward a stone sarcophagus in the middle of the room. He drags his arm forward, drops his pay slip on top, and staggers back to his place on the wall. The others follow, one by one, each offering bits of food to the pile: stale bread, bits of pizza taken, mostly stuff that’s obviously been taken from the trash. It’s all grey or brown.
When they’re done, they come forward together, like some sad family dinner, and eat. The little mausoleum fills with slurps and smacking, and if Leonard hadn’t seen them lay out their feast, he would have imagined something worse. Something ghastly. But the whole thing just makes Leonard sad.
He tries to tell Rabbit about it the next day, the day he quits the job at the candy factory.
Rabbit laughs and says, “You’re a wuss,” so Leonard punches him in the mouth. Hard. Rabbit’s mouth is blotted with blood from where his big front teeth cut his lip.
On Leonard’s way out of the factory, he steals a case of Sour Tarts. He opens them, roll by roll, tearing open the silver paper for the bright candy inside. He dumps all the bright colors back into the box, except for the blue ones, which go in his pockets. He takes the candy to the cemetery, entering the little mausoleum while the zombies are at work, and leaves the box of bright colors — oranges, reds, greens, yellows — on the sarcophagus.
He pushes his hand into a pocket and feels the smooth surface of the blue candies. They make tiny clacking sounds when he moves his fingers and they tumble over his palm. He thinks hard about his choice. Either way, Leonard plans to leave the city. If he goes to Brit’s first, he’ll have to do something about his stuttering, especially if he asks her to go with him.
Leonard takes a deep breath and walks away from the cemetery, stooping every few steps to leave a blue candy in his path, like breadcrumbs. He might want to find his way back, just to remember how things were.
Copyright © 2011 by Aaron Polson