5 Jan

candleJohnnie’s back garden faces the back of the mall. He’s got a bench and table set up and he makes candles back there. Five pots on hot plates brew a variety of colors of melted wax, and he dips and hangs the candles to cool by twos on an umbrella-style clothesline. It’s about 4pm and by now it looks like a magical tree in the early dusk of December. He’s got several boxes loaded with more candles stacked ready to go somewhere.

Across a short vacant lot past his chain link fence he can see some of the stores’ exits. Employees appear from doorways to take their breaks, most enmesh with their phones, but there is one woman who comes out to gaze at the sky. She ponders the blues and greys watching for high flying birds and daydreams. She wears a white apron and slaps puffs of white from it as she comes out. Whatever her mood, happy, neutral, frustrated or animated the clouds of dust fly and as they dissipate all else seems to settle in deference to the captivating sky.

Johnnie’s lived a good life, “a full life,” the well-meaning nurse told him as he left the hospital after his last round of chemo. His quiet decision was that it was the final treatment. Maybe at 80 it was okay to admit defeat gracefully instead of spiraling through medically inflicted belly aches, stiff joints, dry mouth, aching bones and chemo-brain only to meet with the same end a few months farther down the line. He would hope to fade, just not wake up one day.

But watching that woman come out of the bakery evoked a desire to be alive, to fail to give up, to accept, along with the grief, savoring life. She looked to be half his age, and he knew a crush was folly but he imagined what it would be like to dance with her. Maybe kiss. Okay, maybe get her pregnant. He’d meet his maker too soon; it would be nice to leave a little progeny behind.

Rhea shoved her phone into her pocket but it slipped into a bowl of flour and vanished in a soft puff of hushing. She reached in, took out the phone, blew the surface clean and tried for the pocket again, this time with success. A foot on the trashbin pedal and in went the contaminated flour. She tramped out the back door cursing beneath her thoughts about how she was too weak to say no to hosting Christmas yet again, that hosting her kids’ friends and families was overkill but that making “room at the inn” was the proper Christmas response and she had no choice. She may have muttered, “Jimminy Christmas…” as she walked into the light of day, slapping flour out of her apron, agitation out of her soul, captivated by a blue sky too infinitely open to keep her mood down.

She saw the old man in his backyard again, the steaming pots, the clothesline of dangling colors, and of course the long pauses where he’d just stare in her direction; she’d pretend she couldn’t see that far and it seemed to work. She set her gaze on the sky and watched for birds.

Johnnie turned toward his house. A man in uniform approached from the side gate with a cart. They shook hands and loaded the boxes onto the cart. “Thanks for picking these up, Santos,” he said, “You’re a lifesaver.”

“Johnnie we sell these too cheap. For godsakes I’m SanTOS, not SanTA! People will pay what they’re worth.”

“They’re candles, they cost about 40 cents a piece to make, five bucks for two is already asking too much.”

“You’re not adding in the time and energy you spend,” Santos said.

“I like it out here,” said Johnnie turning toward the mall. “Look. She’s pacing. Something’s bothering her today.”

“Christmas,” Santos said. “When I stopped by the bakery on my rounds today her teenagers were in there nagging about something –showed up as soon as they got off school. And she’s trying to keep them in line and some guy walks off with a cake he doesn’t even pay for!  That’s the spirit of Christmas nowadays. Tis the season for me having to chase down idiots.”

“That’s why we sell the candles so cheap, Santos. People need gifts they can afford,” Johnnie said. “Pick me up Saturday at five for the swap meet?”

“Saturday.  Five A-M. You want me to mention to her that we have a booth? I can bring you a cupcake.”

“Yeah, be SanTA, Santos.  Bring me a cupcake,” Johnnie said. He smiled and loved how it felt to do so.

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