Where did the candles come from?
By John Bridges
MAY 4, 1998: I ate dinner by candlelight the other night. It was not a romantic experience. I was alone. The power was off, and I was eating a to-go cheeseburger from Wendy's. Because I was alone, I was eating the onions. Because I expected to be alone until further notice, I had ordered a double order of fries, every bit of which I planned to eat, including the little brown crispy parts that fall down in the bottom of the french-fry container. If the refrigerator had been working, I would have ordered myself a soft-serve chocolate shake, and I would have eaten that too.
All of this happened because of a tornado. Other people had their houses ripped apart. I had an order of fries and a lukewarm martini by candlelight.
I am not quite sure why I had the candles at all. I am not a person who regularly has a need for 10-inch, drip-free tapers. But there they were, shuffled to the side of a kitchen drawer, almost hidden by a couple of half-used packs of Post-It notes, three dried-out Magic Markers, and a gym lock for which I can't remember the combination.
I tried to remember why in hell I would possibly have bought a pair of 10-inch bridal-white tapers. I could not remember ever having cooked a dinner that was precisely a bridal-white sort of occasion. I could not remember ever having looked across my dining room table and seeing a stretch of porcelain-perfect skin glowing as a pair of pomegranate-red lips opened to take a second mouthful of microwaved beans and weenies. I could not remember seeing candlelit fingertips wiping the foam off a freshly opened beer can.
And yet I could only imagine that such a thing must have happened sometime. The candles had already been burned halfway down. Using the battery-powered emergency torch from my car trunk, I found a steak knife and used it to scrape the excess wax away from the already burned wicks. Then I lit the candles. I used the pack of matches I keep on the back of the commode.
It was my understanding that, with a flick of a match--even a match I had brought home from a bar somewhere in Montgomery, Ala.--my entire apartment was supposed to be transformed into a place of magic. It did not happen. I discovered that, lit by nothing more than a couple of pre-used candles, one can finish a cheeseburger, mix himself a second martini, and find his way to and from the bathroom. One cannot, however, work the New York Times crossword puzzle. With only a couple of candles to keep back the darkness, I discovered, it is impossible to watch a video. A couple of candles will not run the CD player or the clothes dryer. A couple of candles will not even make the answering machine click on.
I sat in my living room and watched as the candlelight danced off the furniture and made the throw pillows on the sofa look curiously flat, as if they were part of a painted stage set. I tried to think of myself as Thomas Jefferson on the night he came up with the Declaration of Independence. I tried to think of myself as George Frideric Handel writing "All We Like Sheep." I tried to think of myself as John Milton writing Paradise Lost. Then I remembered that John Milton had to dictate Paradise Lost to his two ill-spirited daughters, precisely because of too many low-wattage evenings like this in his dorm room at Cambridge. I began to understand why Johann Sebastian Bach could be the father of 11 sons and a handful of daughters. Romance has nothing to do with it. There is only so much you can do in the dark, especially when the VCR will not work.
I did not grow up in a household much given to candles on the dining-room table. We ate in the kitchen, under the mild, humming glare of fluorescent lightbulbs. If we had company for supper, they finished before sunset and went on their way. After my brother and I were born, at least until we were sent away to college, I cannot think that my parents ever had dinner alone in a restaurant. After we were gone away to college, I cannot think they ever had dinner in a restaurant that did not have a salad bar.
They would not have understood the concept of eating a dinner lit by the glow of candles. Left to their own devices, they preferred to eat their dinners served off fold-up TV trays, lit by the glow of Lawrence Welk. Whenever an Alabama thunderclap plunged us into blackness, my mother did not suggest that somebody light a candle. Instead, she would say, "Daddy, get up. I think somebody blew a fuse."
My father would get up from his Naugahyde recliner and fumble around until he found a flashlight in his back-porch toolbox. There would be a creaking sound and the rattling of canisters in the kitchen. Then he would come back to the living room, a weak, shivering pool of light spreading out on the parquet tiles before him.
"Power's off," he would say.
My mother would say, "Well, I'm certainly not going to bed yet."
My father would say, "We got any candles?"
My mother would say, "What do you want to do--burn this house down?"
Instead, we would sit in the darkness, waiting for the lights to come on. Sometimes, my mother would hum a hymn tune to herself. My father would take off his shoes, stretch out in his recliner, and begin to snore. At 9 o'clock my mother would announce, "Lord, the only thing I can think about is that sink full of greasy frying pans."
It surprises me to think that I even had candles in a drawer in my kitchen--much less candles that had already been burned. Still, I lit them the other night and set them in little glass candlesticks somebody had given me for Christmas sometime years and years ago. I watched the shadows dance around the room, making my living room look like a set from a theater. I thought to myself that, the right person, seen in just such a light, might make a downed power line worthwhile. I thought I could understand how a table lit by candles could transform a couple of Wendy's burgers into a double order of Chateaubriand. I thought, for just a moment, that I understood that anyone might be able to write poetry by the glow of candle. Given enough candlelight, I thought, there could be music in any soul.
I thought all this as the candles burned low in their candlesticks, burning themselves down to little nub-like candle stubs.
Then a candlestick cracked, overheated by the last, hot flare of its candle. Like a fool, I touched a shard of the broken glass. I have a blister on my right middle finger to this day. I had to throw the last of my french fries away.
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