“Like taking candy from a baby,” Mrs. Tabling said, pulling a card from my hand. That hurt. I was terrible at cards, but this old lady had been making a target of me all night, despite the game changing from gin to Go Fish to whatever we were playing now.
The old lady stopped smiling and looked sad all of a sudden. “Nobody actually takes candy from a baby, though,” she said. “Bad people always give candy to little ones, that’s the problem. Been doing it for ages.” Sarah, a tall girl sitting opposite, giggled. I worked in the same office building as Sarah. I didn’t know her well but she did impressions of all the supervisors, which were pretty funny.
“Game switch,” Jane announced, whose house it was. “What’ll it be, gin again? Or poker?” Groans went around the table as players slapped down their now-useless hands. Mrs. Tabling frowned and scraped her cards together with her reddened, bony hands. Her knuckles were huge. She saw me looking at them and shoved her cards towards me to gather up, and turned away.
“How about Old Maid?” I suggested. Jane made a face that told me I was an idiot. “If you play draw poker again I’ll just watch and sit out,” I said, and got up to stretch and get a drink. A few of the other women were also heading towards the kitchen. On the counter there were little sandwiches, pretzels, and a plate of marshmallow Santas left over from the holidays, so I reached for those. My hand smacked into Mrs. Tabling’s, who was also reaching; she gasped in pain. “I’m really sorry!” I said immediately. She actually hissed. At this behavior, all I could think to do was pick up a couple of Santas and offer them to her. She accepted them.
I scurried back to the living room and sat down with some iced tea. Jane told everyone to take a break, so we sat in the comfy chairs away from the card table. Sarah plopped down beside me. “You gave candy to a biddy,” she whispered. “Does that make you bad?”
Mrs. Tabling was looking down but I think she heard. “When I was a child, I was frequently accosted by old women and offered candy,” she said. “Not just a piece but a handful or a bag, and the woman would sometimes be very insistent. Once the woman had pieces in a paper napkin and put this in my hands, and it fell open, and she twisted it together and told me, ‘There, hold it so you can’t see it.’ I knew there was something wrong.”
“Why did they all offer candy?” Jane demanded. “What were they up to?”
Mrs.Tabling (whose first name was Susanna, but no one was comfortable using it) looked at Jane. “These offers all happened when I was alone. My parents were still inside a store and I had stepped outside, waiting for them. It was deliberate. When my mother returned, she’d seize the candy and fling it in the first bin she saw. I’m not sure what the idea was, exactly,” she puzzled. “Maybe it was poisoned. They never tried to make me go with them… it was just the candy.”
“Weirdos,” Sarah said.
“Crazy people,” I said.
“And once I remember ringing doorbells for candy on Halloween, and at one house — belonging to some very dubious people — the owners seemed to be having a party and one of their guests answered the door. She was pretty but looked mean somehow. Had on a striped top, tight black slacks, and I held out my Halloween bag and said, ‘Trick or treat,’ and she held out two cupped hands with something in them I couldn’t see, and put it straight into my bag. I said ‘Thank you,’ and started to leave. She burst out laughing and said, ‘Wait, that was rocks,’ and she got me some candy bars.”
Mrs. Tabling-Susanna met my eyes. “I think that was different. Just young people making fun of kids. The others, the old ladies with candy, that had a purpose.”
I gave a helpless look at Jane and Sarah. Why were we suddenly getting these weird confidences from Mrs. Tabling tonight? We all played cards regularly and our evenings were unremarkable; we’d never sought more than some not-in-depth friendly exchanges with her. She had a husband who needed care most of the time, and our card nights gave her a chance to get out for a change; I think that was why Jane started inviting her, in fact. She seemed a lonely person; that was about all we knew, except she was sometimes rude to me.
I suddenly wished I were in the habit of calling her by her first name.
“Why do you think —“ Sarah started to ask her, but was interrupted.
“Sometimes I wish I had had children,” Mrs. Tabling said, over her. Her eyes flickered up at us. “I’m so much older than all you girls, you’re actually younger than a daughter would be. You probably get fussed having me here.”
Everyone said no, no, all at once. “You’re our neighbor, we want you here,” Sarah said. Jane jumped up and got everyone her special hot-chocolate-with-whisky mugs which usually capped off the night. This seemed to help. We sat and had a second one each, and more snacks. The stars were now out, I could see at the window. Everyone chattered for a while, no cards were played; then it got quiet again.
Everybody was hiding a yawn now and then, so we went to put dishes in the sink and get our coats. At the closet, Mrs. Tabling took my elbow. She pushed something into my hands. “Please take this,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t want to have it.” I opened it and yes — it was a plastic bag of mixed candy. Good stuff, too, chocolate wrapped truffles, bars, packs of gum, all kinds.
“What is this?” I whispered. It was unreal. Was I now the child being handed the candy, she the pernicious old lady with an agenda? And I wondered: Was it poisoned?
She blinked some tears out of her eyes, quickly. “Please take it so I’m not tempted any more. I suddenly had this urge to buy something nice for a small child, something he or she would like, so they’d be happy to receive it and, and, be pleased with me. Something like that. I just wanted to make a small child happy. Please get it away from me. I’m so upset,” she said.
I took it and put it deep in my coat pocket.
“Just look at me,” she said. “Isn’t it crazy.”