Charles dealt the pack of Chuckles from his jacket to the table.
“Please, Charles, not with the Chuckles again.”
“It’s all about Chuckles,” Charles said. “No matter how you try to deny it, it’s all about Chuckles.”
“For fuck’s sake,” I sighed.
Charles split the plastic wrapping, exposing the sugar-coated jellied sweets.
“Who goes first?” he asked.
“Who gives a shit?” I returned.
“Okay. I will.”
Charles pulled the green Chuckle from the cardboard pack, then bit it in half.
“Your turn,” he said.
I chose the orange and took a bite too. We chewed a while.
“So why the orange?” Charles asked.
“Cause I felt like choosing orange. Orange is usually okay.”
“No. No. No,” Charles insisted. “Orange is the color of motivation and encouragement. It symbolizes joy and happiness.”
“Where do you get this shit?” I asked.
“You can look it up,” he said.
“Or I couldn’t.”
Charles finished the other half of his green Chuckle, then waited.
“You gonna ask me about mine? About green?”
“No,” I said.
“Green expresses renewal and life. And affluance,” Charles said anyway.
“And greed,” I said.
“But the good far outweighs the bad,” he said
“But what’s it taste like?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter. This is more like an exercise.”
“Convictions and commitments about what?”
“Well, that in my case, green was the best choice.”
“Based on what?”
“Based on what green means. Based on what green is.”
I didn’t want to get wrangled into that bullshit again. But you never know. Sometimes people change, but usually they don’t.
“But it’s just lime. It’s just candy. It’s just cheap, gooey lime candy, so why not just taste it? Why not just enjoy it for the sweetness and flavor?”
“Because it can be more than cheap sweetness and flavor if you allow it to be,” Charles insisted.
“Why’d I want to allow that?”
“Because it can be so much more than just a sweet confection. And, as such, you can be too.”
“What if I don’t need it to be more than candy.”
“Then you’re selling it short and selling yourself short. See, some people just see a hoe. Others see the garden and vegetables in the hoe. They’re the visionaries. If you deny that vision, you’re wasting its potential.”
“Being a simple gardener’s okay with me,” I said.
“Then you’re wasting your own potential, which makes you dumb and lazy.”
“Dumb and lazy compared to who?”
“Compared to me,” Charles insisted.
I thought for a moment as the taste of my orange Chuckle disappeared.
“Does holding tight to your convictions mean more to you than understanding things?”
“Yes,” Charles said. “Absolutely. Because when the truth is too complicated – as it always is – it leaves us empty. Whereas convictions don’t.”
“So convictions are better than nothing, when it comes to being empty? When it comes to answers?”
“Yes,” Charles said. “Convictions are far more filling than half-empty truths and understanding.”
I pushed Charles’ candy away.
“I think I’m done with the Chuckles,” I said.
“We still got the red, yellow and black.”
“Nobody likes the black. Licorice sucks.”
I realized right away my statement needed correcting.
“Not objectively,” I said. “But subjectively. For me. And I don’t think you like it either.”
“True,” Charles said. “All the more reason to savor it.”
“How do you savor something when you don’t like it?”
“Burdens. Suffering, Martyrdom. Crosses to bear,” Charles said. “Not everybody can handle it.”
“But you can? You can handle the black Chuckle?”
I wanted to crack wise about burdens, like Christ’s as the savior of mankind. Like Macbeth’s burden of power. Like Raskolnikov’s burden guilt. Like Charles’s burden of the black Chuckle. But I couldn’t.
“Yes. Even when I don’t like it, I accept it,” Charles said.
To make his point, Charles took the black Chuckle and tossed the whole thing in, making a real production of gnashing, grinding and glopping away at it. He swished the saliva-mixed goo all round his mouth. Then he smiled with black between the creases and crevices of his teeth. He stuck out his tongue. It was black and slick as patent leather.
“Aaaaarrrrrrhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!” Charles bellowed.
I looked at Charles dumbly.
“Take the red one,” he urged. “Everybody likes the red one. It’s easy. It’s cherry. I bet even you can handle it.”
“No, Charles,” I said. “I think I’m through with the Chuckles.”
Understanding, he nodded. Then he picked up the remaining Chuckles, the yellow and red ones. He threw them into his mouth, saying between chews, “It’s okay. Not everybody can handle all the Chuckles.”
I watched him eat. I heard him muttering, “Friendship. Optimism. Humor. Intellect. Logic. Passion. Romance. Charity. Bravery.”
I said, “I think I’d like to be done with Chuckles from now on, Charles. Not just today, but for forever.”
He continued chewing and muttering, “Passion. Courage. Desire. Intellect. Warmth. Mentality.”
Hearing all this, my mind tried wandering off to all the bullshit about astrological signs.
Swallowing hard, Charles finished the yellow and red candies. I wondered that, if combined, they blended into the symbolisms of the orange or if they retained their distinct properties plus those of orange. The potential of their alchemy was vexing.
“Okay,” Charles said. “No more Chuckles. But what about the other old-time candies. You remember Zero and Milkshake bars? I know where to get Chic-O-Sticks and Long Boys. We used to love those, remember? And I know where to find them.”
“No, Charles,” I pleaded. “No more about candy.”
“But they were good. They were the best,” he insisted.
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay? That’s it? You don’t agree?”
“They were the best.”
“They were good,” I said. “But the best? No.”
“Then what’s better?”
“It’s all pretty much the same. It’s all just candy.”
“But it’s not.”
I had to cut Charles off.
“A preference in candy bars doesn’t make you a better person,” I said. “It may make you feel a little bit better about yourself, but it doesn’t make you better.”
“But it can. That’s my point. So why not let it? The world’s cold and cruel and indifferent, after all. We need to acknowledge and accept our minor comforts and pleasures, otherwise we grow calloused and jaded.”
I objected, “No. We shouldn’t take much comfort in candy.”
“Cause it’s cheap,” I said. “It’s too close to nothing instead of something.”
“Something? Well, something’s really changed about you,” Charles lamented. “It’s like you’ve grown too good for me. Remember how we used to scrape together change and go to Ratz’s garage for penny candy and bottles of pop? Used to be a big thing. Now you’re too good to even want to talk about it. What am I, like a bad memory to you?”
I always remembered about Ratz’s filling station. Charles never allowed me to forget. And I knew my not forgetting meant a lot to him. And it was never that I wanted to forget, it was just that it was one of thousands of memories holding no special rank or meaning among all the rest. And, so far as I could tell, there was no reason it should.
“I’m sorry Charles, but things change,” I said. “I’ve moved on to others things since then. I’ve even had plenty of other candy since then, none of which has ever interested you – I suppose because candy’s not the real issue.”
“You’re right,” he said. “The real issue is us.”
I wanted to say that it had never been about us. It’s always been about Charles.
“Then I’m not that interested,” I said. “Sorry.”
“You’re not interested in us? You’re that dismissive of me?”
“As half of our equation – no, I’m not interested – because I’m not that interesting, Charles. Almost anything is at least as interesting as me, if not more.”
I wished Charles might consider his own contribution to the same equation, but I knew he couldn’t.
“You’ve changed,” he said.
“Who doesn’t? But so have the times. And we’ve both grown older too.”
“You’ve grown cynical with age,” Charles said. “Simple pleasures is all I’m putting out there. Simple pleasures from the past, like Chuckles, that you’re so desperate to forget.”
“Call it what you will,” I said. “But I’m telling you, I’m done with the Chuckles.”
“I understand,” Charles said. “As I said, not everybody can handle them.”
“Goddammit, it’s just jelly candy, Charles. Can’t you see that?” I begged. “It’s just dime store candy. It’s just sugar and cheap flavoring. Nothing more. Please Charles, try to understand. And if you can’t, at least leave me out of it.”
He looked at me pitifully.
“No, my friend. It’s not me who needs convincing. It’s you who needs it.”
Exasperated, I went into my jacket. I tossed my ace in the hole between us. With a crinkly thud, it clunked on the table beside the empty tray of Chuckles. Charles was surprised, which quickly turned to shock.
“If you’re gonna pull this kind of shit, you need to warn me,” he said. “What is this bullshit, anyway?”
He read the package.
The package was oblong rather than thin and flat and small, more like fun size than a regular bar of chocolate. Its wrapping – brown in the body tapering to scarlet at its ruffled ends – displayed a proud, cartoon king with a golden crown, presumably a cartoon king that likes chocolate a lot. The bar read ‘Carlos V’.
“I think it’s pronounced ‘Carlos Five’,” I said.
Charles was nervous. He was skeptical, as if I’d dropped some device from the future between us.
“So what the hell’s a Carlos Five?”
“Mexican chocolate,” I said. “Plain Mexican chocolate.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“The Hispanic market.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Cause we already got Hershey’s,” Charles said. “It’s a classic. We don’t need anything else. We don’t need this Mexican shit.”
“Shit? You haven’t even tried it.”
Charles turned away. I knew he was distrustful of the quality standards of other countries. At least, that was the routine excuse.
“We can try it,” I assured Charles. “It’ll be alright. Even the worst of chocolates are still good.”
“Always trying to show me up. This time with your uppity, imported chocolate bars. Can’t be satisfied with lowbrow Nestlé, right?”
“Nestlé makes Carlos Five,” I said. “It’s true. They own the brand. It’s on the package.”
Charles began pulling on his nose and rubbing his eyes.
“It’s okay,” I said.
I took a deep breath, giving Charles some time to process what was unfolding. Slowly, I took the small bar of Carlos V and made a small rip in its slick red wrapping.
“What are you doing?” Charles asked.
“C’mon,” I said gently. “Try it with me. If you can’t do this, we’re done with candies forever.”
Charles kept looking away, afraid of what undoing the wrapping might reveal.
“It’s okay,” I assured him. “This isn’t blasphemy.”
I tore the package open. It was just chocolate, like other chocolate bars – oblong, brown and squared. It was scored in 7 separate nuggets, each containing a letter. “SOLCARV”, it read. I snapped off a few nuggets from the scored row of chocolate and ate it. I handed the rest of the bar over to Charles.
“Go on,” I said. “Just a piece.”
Charles took the bar. the “CARV” from “SOLCARV” was all that was left.
“What did it say?” he asked.
“S-O-L-C-A-R-V” I spelled out.
“Yeah. I guess,” I said.
“What’s it mean?”
“Not sure. Does it matter?” I asked.
Charles defiantly broke off the “RV” squares. He shoved them in his mouth, punishing them with his teeth.
“How is it?”
“Why are you doing this?” he asked.
“Because it needs to be done,” I said.
“What’s the principle to us sharing this Carlos Five? There must be a moral, at least. Some overriding principle. Some grand purpose.”
“No. It’s just chocolate,” I said. “Just Mexican chocolate.”
It was hard for Charles to swallow but he finished the square of Mexican chocolate anyway. He was close to tears.
“It’s okay, Charles,” I said. “It’s okay.”
He swallowed a final time. He wiped at his eyes. He took a deep breath and looked toward the heavens before returning his attention to me.
“You satisfied?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“No,” Charles said. “Are you really satisfied? Or are you just fumbling and flirting around with all sorts of different candies, never able to commit?”
“I’m satisfied,” I said. “Truly satisfied with either Twix or Zero or Carlos Five.”
Charles’ eyes grew big. His heavy breathing paused.
“You’ve reached Zen.” he proclaimed. ‘You’ve reached nirvana. Or sainthood.”
I couldn’t tell if it was a question or statement.
“No,” I said, “It’s just candy. Just chocolate. Just sugar and milk and cocoa. It’s nothing spiritual. It’s just common sense. It’s the truth of what it is, without embellishment. That’s all.”
I knew Charles couldn’t believe me. There was no way for him to be able to believe it.
“If it’s nothing but candy – if it’s all nothing but candy – then next time we can go back to Chuckles?” he asked. “Without any more of this Carlos Five bullshit?”
I understood Charles’ struggle. I had for a long time. And I felt bad for coercing him into the Carlos V, even though it was for his own good.
“Sure,” I said. “Since it’s all the same. If that’s what you want.”
Little did I think Charles understood my patronizing him. For I knew better than Charles that Chuckles weren’t just wanted he wanted – they were what he needed. So I decided next time we met to exercise more empathy than Charles ever thought I possessed. I decided to allow the Chuckles again, but still without much consideration to what color or flavor I might choose.
“I only want it if you want it,” Charles said.
I understood how much he wanted me to want it. I’d always understood.
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “I never hated Chuckles.”
“Except for the black.”
“True,” I said. “The black will always be yours.”
Charles smiled a genuine smile. I noticed the black completely washed away from his teeth.