The following essay won first place in the Wisconsin Regional Writers' Jade Ring Contest. The author grew up in Oak Park on north Maple and Forest avenues. Pigney's was a family-owned shop on the south side of Chicago Avenue, just east of the gas station at Harlem. As Ms. Davis puts it, "Anyone who went to O.W. Holmes School knew Pigney's, especially since they had a huge case of penny candy." Pigney's, she says, was there until at least 1961, when she left for college.
A band of sunlight sneaks through a slit in the blinds and beams directly on my still-closed eyes. Rusty's ice-cube nose pokes my cheek. Then his warm tongue slurps across my mouth. "Is it time to get up, boy?" I mumble. I stretch and sleepily become aware of feeling happy. But why, it's just another ... "Yahoo! Hey, Rusty, it's Saturday! No school! I'm goin' to Mrs. Pigney's!"
I scramble out of bed and throw the covers over my pillow. The linoleum floor feels cold on my bare feet so I hurry to pull on corduroys, sneakers and a striped T-shirt. Rusty's nails click and slip on the shiny floor as he whirls and jumps in the air. I quickly brush my hair into a pony tail, then thunder down the steep winding back staircase to the kitchen. Rusty races me and tumbles down the stairs past me. "Mom, can I collect bottles to take back to the store?" Taking bottles back is the only chore in my eight years that I have ever begged to do. My reward for this chore is to keep — well, really, spend — the money.
"Eat your breakfast first," Mom says. I wolf down corn flakes and grape juice, then wipe my purple mustache on my striped sleeve.
"OK, I'm done, Mom. Now can I take the bottles back?"
"Did you put your dishes in the sink?"
"I'm doin' it. I wanna go to Mrs. Pigney's. Can I go?"
"Not until you brush your teeth."
I run to the bathroom, turn the water on loud, wet my toothbrush and put it back in the holder. "OK, now can I go?"
"Did you make your bed?"
"Yeah, Mom! Can I go now? It's Saturday.
"Are the covers tucked in?"
"Um, well, I mighta forgot one side. I'll do it when I get back. 'Kay?"
"No, now!" Mom folds her arms, frowns and stares at me. I make a pouty mouth, scrunch up my eyebrows and glare back at Mom, who doesn't move. I sigh loudly, stomp up the stairs and make my bed.
"Pigney's is prob'ly closed by now, Mom." I whimper. "My Saturday's ruined."
"Tee, it's only 10 o'clock," Mom says.
"Oh ... Ya hear that, Rusty? I got lotsa time! Anything else ya want me to do for ya, Mom? I'm not sure if I got my allowance this week. Do we have lotsa bottles? Maybe the trash should go out, huh? Did I get my allowance?"
"You got your allowance and spent it on a squirt gun, remember? Now, there's two cartons of Beyerly's Orange and a few quart bottles on the back porch. Just be careful not to drop any!"
"Gee, thanks, Mom, you're the greatest. I'll be careful. Sorry, Rusty, you gotta stay home. I got important chores to do."
I put on my dark blue jacket with the plaid flannel collar and the big zipper that bites my neck. I kick open the backdoor and hopscotch down the stairs. I haul my scuffed Radio Flyer with the squashed handle up the outside cellar stairs. I fetch the bottles off the porch, pack them in my wagon and head for the Jewel Tea Co. Grocery Store. I shuffle through a small pile of dry leaves and giggle as my feet disappear. I stamp on the biggest curly crisp leaves 'cause they make the best crunchy noise. I wheel my wagon into the store and hoist the bottles up to the service counter.
"You have three quart bottles at 5 cents each and two six-packs at 12 cents each," the clerk says. "You get 39 cents back."
"Wow!" I beam. "Thanks." I stuff the change in my pocket and gallop to Pigney's at the end of the block, my empty wagon clattering behind. I drop my wagon handle and hear it scrape against the building as it comes to a stop. A bell jingles as I pull open the heavy door and step into heaven — Pigney's Penny Candy Store. My mouth waters from the smell of homemade doughnuts and sweet candy. I gaze into the tall, slanted, glass penny-candy counter and wait for Mrs. Pigney to come out of the back room.
Mrs. Pigney is sort of plump but not real fat. She always wears a black dress and witch's shoes — you know, those black, clunky shoes with thick heels. Her black and silver hair is pulled into a large bun that rests on the back of her neck. Her glasses sit halfway down her pointy nose. She never smiles, but she's nice to me and my friends, even when we take a long time to choose our candy. She doesn't frown either, so I think maybe she's not sad but just real tired. As I try to decide what to buy, I hear Mrs. Pigney's stockings make a slow whoosh-whoosh sound as she walks from the back of the store to the front where I wait.
"What can I get for you today?" asks Mrs. Pigney.
"Can I have some penny candy, please?"
"How much do you have to spend?"
"I have 39 cents." Mrs. Pigney keeps a running total in her head for all us kids so we don't pick more candy than we have money for. She opens a small brown bag and waits patiently. My eyes light on the tiny, sweet, colored candies stuck in rows on a ribbon of shiny paper. Biting the candy off the paper makes my teeth squeak and gives me the willies. "I want some dots." Next, I see the wax lips and buck teeth that you can chew like gum when you're done wearin' 'em. "I want some wax lips." Then I see the sugary marzipan pies in pleated foil dishes, sort of like pop bottle caps. "Gimme one of those pies with the little spoon, a two-pack of Mary Janes, a red licorice whip and a pretzel rod. How much is left?"
"You have 17 cents." I zip my jacket zipper up and down while I search the shelves to choose the candy that will last the longest. Mrs. Pigney stares at the wall behind me.
On the bottom shelf, I recognize the small red box with the Indian face on it. "Oh, can I have some punkin seeds?" They last a long time 'cause I suck the smooth white coating of salt off each seed, one at a time, before turning it sideways between my teeth and crunch it. "Oooo, an' a jaw breaker, too." Some layers feel smooth and some are rough. Most layers are sweet, but the hot layers make me take the jaw breaker out of my mouth. Sometimes I wanna throw it away, but I don't or I'll miss the prize inside ... a tiny nut.
"Oh yeah, gimme some Bazooka Bubble Gum and a Holloway Bar." Holloway Bars are all day suckers 'cause the caramel is so stiff you have to suck it for a long time to chew a piece off.
Next, my eyes land on the miniature cardboard cartons that hold four wax pop bottles, each with a different flavor. "An' I need a pack of pop bottles too." I pretend I'm a tough guy when I bite off the bottle tops. Then I drink the juice and chew the wax like gum until the flavor's gone. "How much is left?"
"Now you have 10 cents." I stand on tiptoe to see the top shelf and suddenly spot the familiar pumpkin orange color of the best treasure in the case. Lying in the back row are the pan pipes that Mrs. Pigney gets every fall just before Halloween. They have six tones that I try to play songs on, but mostly just blow brrrreet-brrrroot up and down the scale.
"I wanna Halloween flute."
"That'll be 39 cents." Mrs. Pigney hands me a stuffed little brown bag with a pretzel rod sticking out of the top.
"G'bye, Mrs. Pigney." I pull the Halloween flute out before I even get out the door. I put it to my mouth. It smells like birthday cake and paper tablecloths. I blow my flute and hear two others answer down the street.
Sweet Saturday has begun.