Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Christmas Candle

Gladys had been unemployed for nearly a year. She thought about the coming Christmas fondly and sadly. This year she would not be able to have her traditional “big” party. Every year prior she had been able to invite a good group of people over to her smallish home, stuff them into her diminutive dining room and treat them like kings and queens. She really loved cooking for people occasionally. Although it was exciting and demanding, it always drained her—there were so many plates to spin, literally and logistically while wanting to meet the needs and wants of her guests. This exhausted her completely—but she relished the infrequent gathering.

If Gladys had been working she would have had to rush home and begin decorating. But as it was, she simply spent the last two days applying for jobs and putting up Christmas decorations. Her plan for the day was to unpack and artfully distribute her last box of yuletide filigree. She had also invited two of her neighbors over for cookies and tea in the evening. Cookies were inexpensive and a treat. This she could do.

Gladys put on some holiday music and sat down to unwrap the decorations. She pulled out a long, skinny bag. For Gladys it was out-of-sight/out-of-mind and unwrapping these things each year was like Christmas for Christmas. When she pulled the paper back she smiled with delight. It was the art nouveau Christmas tree—simple, narrow, tall and completely covered with bits of gold, jade, and blue-green glitter. She held it up and turned it in the light. Reflected halos danced all over the tree betraying the multitude of tiny facets eager to catch any available light. Gladys could hear the words of the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” playing in the background. She quickly turned up the music, put the fashionable tree in its perfect spot and started whistling with the music. Finally it was Christmas in her heart. Turning back to her purpose for the day, Gladys unwrapped each holiday artifact with anticipation and delight. Her home was becoming a seasonal celebration of color, cheer and joy.

Gladys stopped for a moment to look for any Christmas-barren corners. Her eyes lingered when she came to the standard tree. All the bobbles and little globes glowed brightly in the late afternoon sun. The tiny lights did their best to compete with the sun and would attempt later to take its place as the great orb disappeared below the horizon.

She was nearly to the bottom of the last box. Suddenly Gladys remembered her favorite holiday candle. She spun quickly searching for it. Had she put it out already? It was nowhere to be seen. That meant that it was still in the box at her feet. It was such a small thing in the world, but it meant so much to her. She pilfered through the empty papers and bubble wrap looking for the familiar shape. As she grasped it in both of her hands she smiled before she opened it. This was the large comforting heart of the Christmastide decorations—always at the center of her dining table. When lit it glowed from within and the flame burned bright and steady, strong and true. It was a deep golden beauty which she set in the center of an adequately realistic spray of evergreen. It was the perfect candle. And it had warmed Christmas for many years.

Gladys took the spray and the unwrapped candle to the table. She set the spray at the center of the table. Gladys slowly released the candle from its bondage. The first glimpse of the candle made her smile again. She released it as if it were a red carpet for a queen. Gladys's eye caught an anomaly as the great candle rolled between her palms. There, deep on one side, was a gash that if inflicted on her arm would have laid her flesh open to the bone. Gladys gasped. She stared at the wound in disbelief. This was impossible! She had taken such pains to wrap it carefully last year. Her anger flared at the unknown assailant and then quickly cooled to defeat when she knew that only her own hands could have carried out such a crime. She sat there holding the ravaged heart of Christmas replaying the order in which she had unpacked the treasure, determined to find the offending edge that had cut so deeply and reproaching herself for such carelessness. Tears came to her eyes and the sorrowful strains of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" provided ample pathos for this holiday tragedy.

"This is ridiculous!" Gladys suddenly declared out loud. Resolve replaced sorrow and provided sufficient impetus for Gladys to pilfer every available coin she could find. Her guests were coming in a couple of hours and the discount store was just a mile away. She would have time to put the boxes away, vacuum and run to find an unmarked candle. Quickly she checked all of the receptacles for miscellaneous items and discovered $1.43 -- sufficient for one cheap candle.

It was bitterly cold this dusk and it took far longer to defrost the car windows than Gladys had anticipated. She also recognized that the roads were quite icy. Once on the road her energy for obtaining a perfect Christmas candle was transferred to the attention required for driving perilous roads. With a sigh of relief Gladys parked her car in front of the store. The garish florescent store lights cast an eerie pale green onto the snow and ice. Once inside the store, Gladys could feel her cheeks burning as her face warmed up. She peeled off her gloves and coat and stuffed them into the wire children’s seat on the front of the first available cart. It was far easier to carry these bulky items in this way, leaving her arms and hand free to shuffle the various candles as she shopped.

Discount stores rarely had all the same items in the same aisles so she would have to quickly reconnoiter the entire store to find all available ones. Her $1.43 might be enough to almost compensate for the tragic loss at home.

Gladys started shopping in earnest in the third aisle where she had spotted the first row of candles. She stood in front of them with a discerning and critical eye like an inspector checking for quality. Gladys pushed three pale yellow, fat and short candles to the side. She reached deep into the shelf to pull others out of the shadows. Two slightly faded yellow candles were quickly compared. One had a blue tint around the bottom -- the candle-makers error no doubt -- the other's top edge was marred around most of the rim. Gladys put them back and then inched sideways giving herself permission to consider other colors. The pine smelling green ones were acceptable. But green candles faded more quickly and any scratches prove white and glaring. Gladys bent down to peruse the thinner, tall, white candles but decided against these because they were too white. All of her decorations were deep reds, golds and earthy greens. This color of candle would obviously be a terrible mismatch.

Gladys saw the thick-soled, black work boots first. As she stood upright she took in the filthy jeans and a dark coat worn by a man with a strange grin on his face. Gladys immediately felt uncomfortable. It was apparent that he was not looking at candles. Gladys clutched her purse to her side and as casually as possible pushed her cart toward the next aisle. As she turned into this aisle she was relieved to find several other people looking for wares. Gladys headed toward the center of the aisle where the next array of candles stood. There were various shades of red here, but most of them were nicked or scarred in one way or another. This was just the plain truth about shopping in a deep discount store.

She smelled him first -- a recent memory. He stood several feet away feigning interest in some holiday glasses. One quick, knowing smile dashed her way and then he walked toward the back of the store. Gladys was feeling more uncomfortable and moved three aisles down where she thought she remembered seeing more candles. For a brief moment she almost surrendered her search, but then reprimanded herself for her unfounded fears. The man had not been seen for several minutes and candles resurged to their preeminence in her shopping purpose.

In this aisle Gladys found the candles at the back of the store near the freezer section. These were an odd assortment of candles with embedded objects -- pinecones, poorly painted wax figures of snowmen, Santa Clauses and garish angels. For a moment Gladys’ conscience pinched her with the truth that these sad little figures were painted by overworked and horribly underpaid Chinese hands. Yet Gladys rifled through the shelf in hopes of finding a hidden treasure.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a dark figure near the freezer cases. She looked squarely toward the freezers and saw him staring into them as if an intriguing program was on television. She heard a little, short laugh and immediately decided to head to the front of the store. She felt threatened and no candle was worth that. She heard footsteps behind her matching her pace. She tried to vary them and again they were matched. Then she heard the low laugh, now closer. Without a moment’s hesitation Gladys headed for the front of the store. She could almost hear the laughter next to her ear. In an evasive maneuver she suddenly stopped near the cash register by a small table of sale items. The man apparently did not anticipate this and nearly tripped over Gladys's cart. Gladys looked at the cashier doe-eyed and more than a little frightened. But the cashier wasn't looking at Gladys. She was glaring at the man. He recovered from his accident, saw the cashier's angry gaze, guffawed quickly and dashed out the front door. The cashier mumbled curses after him as the door shut.

Gladys thought she might get some sympathy from the cashier, but got nothing more than an obligatory smile. That's when Gladys saw it. There at the end of the counter stood a lone and nearly perfect candle. Someone must have set it aside before checking out. Gladys picked it up and rolled it between her palms. It was deep cranberry red with beautiful Victorian filigree brushed with gold. It was only half the size she had hoped for, but it would be perfect in the evergreen spray on her dining table. She would not know until she lit it if it glowed, but the filigree was charming enough on its own. She quickly looked for the price and was relieved to see that she could afford it. The cashier was hanging up the phone and ready to ring up this purchase.

"Watch yourself out there," said the cashier.

"Oh yes, I will. It's pretty icy."

"Icy, yeah. But there's more than ice to look out for.”

"Oh." Gladys could feel the fight or flight instinct jumpstart her adrenaline.

"Do you want a bag for this?"

"No, thank you." And with a short, but sincere smile she wished the somber cashier a Merry Christmas.

The wind hit Gladys in the face and she hunkered down into her coat, glanced to the right and to the left, and then with certain alarm launched herself across the ice. The man in the heavy boots had been waiting near the door. His newest grin had frightened her completely. As she raced toward her car, praying she would not fall on the ice, she could hear snow crunching on the median strip to her left. She felt her purse being pulled away from her tight grip. Gladys spun around, caught the man in her sights and threw the Christmas candle with all her might. In the next instant the Christmas candle lay half buried in the snow near his head.

"That's some shot!"

Gladys turned to see two officers quickly walking up behind her, grinning. She saw the cashier standing on the sidewalk by the front of the store, arms crossed against the cold, with a look of utter astonishment on her face.

"Did I kill him?" Gladys was stunned.

"No ma'am," said one of the officers bending over the man. At the sound of the officer’s voice the fallen man stirred and groaned.

"Let's get the paramedics here," said the officer as the man sat up, growling in Gladys's direction.

“But how were you here?" Gladys was simultaneously confused and relieved the officers had been there at just that moment.

"The store manager called. He's been harassing people at the store for the last week.”

"Will I be charged with assault?"

"No ma'am. As we see it this was an act of self-defense. If you would give officer Pickman your report of events you'll be free to go. The store manager is your witness and, I imagine, a grateful one at that."

Gladys gave a brief account of her brief encounter with the strange black-booted man who is now being whisked away in an ambulance. When the officers indicated that she was free to go Gladys started toward her car. In the snow she saw the half buried candle. It had been turned over and one side was smashed like a stick of butter dropped on the floor. Gladys left it there satisfied that her golden Christmas candle at home would do just fine.

Copyright M.R. HYDE 2010