“Out, Brief Candle” unfolds with longing and with sensory details (mostly smell) revolving around memories, tangibles, a candle. The prose is lovely, the voice is original. And the piece surprises!” — Guest Judge Kim Chinquee
Scent is the strongest tie to memory, they say. It had made the decision easy for Marlow. At least the initial decision. From there she had been overwhelmed, standing at the counter in a near-trance, fiddling with the tassels on the zipper of her purse, trying to decide what to put him in. This whole industry was so strange, nearly as strange as the idea that Luis would never be coming back for his work shirts or his Xbox or the spinach and avocado remnants in the blender that she had left soaking ever since she found it on the counter that morning. Just wait until he gets home, she’d thought, and she’d tear him a new one for not cleaning up after breakfast. But he never came home. And he still wouldn’t—not until she picked a candle. The skinny employee behind the counter, with a light-pink shag haircut, rolled sleeves and a permanent shrug, twiddled gloved hands as Marlow blinked and deliberated.
The glass display cases reminded her of the bakeries they had visited in the weeks leading up to the accident. She had almost bought a wedding cake. Had she bought one? Was that another thing she had to call and cancel? She would check later. She forced her mind back to the candle samples in front of her.
So many of these seemed so macho, so tacky, as unoriginal as the sympathy card Luis’ work had sent her. (But what new thing was there to say about grief, except that it was hers now?) A candle shaped like a football. Team Name Here. For people whose sport had consumed them in life, why not literally subsume them in it? One like a fish. Luis had hated fishing, hated fish. She had learned that after he had politely eaten an entire plate of salmon the first time she cooked for him. She had been horrified. Yet not as horrified as she was to be deciding, now, which candle should hold the remnants of his being.
She scanned past the more religious-looking section—he wouldn’t want to be a knock-off saint or anything like that. He needed something subtle but still strong. Maybe even a little sexy. Her eyes lighted on one shaped like a golden penis. Pass. (Or, as he would have said to her with a smirk if he were here, hard pass.) So ornate, all of these little wax tombstones. He would have gotten a kick out of them. She stepped toward the far-right case, which seemed dedicated to muted colors and sleeker shapes. Better. But Lord help her if she chose one that looked like she’d found it in the blandest home goods aisle in Target. (They’d been registered at Target, is a registry something you have to cancel?) It still needed to look distinctive.
Her eyes had gone dry—the driest they had been in weeks, in fact—from forcing herself to stare at dozens upon dozens of ugly candles, when she finally saw The One. Dark blue, darker than navy but not quite black. A tall pillar, just like him. Cracks and flecks of gold throughout it in an unidentifiable pattern. Luis had been obsessed with the concept of “kintsugi”: broken pieces of pottery being fused back together with gold. The brokenness elevates the art, he’d said, it’s a metaphor. She had looked up from her laptop, pressing hands to her temples to fight off a headache. I get it, but it’s too expensive. We should get the plain white bowls, they’ll match better.
The candle was expensive. The employee double-checked the order form, scanning over the reference number she’d been provided by the crematorium, and nodded. “We’ll call you when it’s ready. Forty-eight hours tops.” Marlow nodded, wondering what functional human things she should attempt to do for forty-eight hours.
When the candle was ready, she immediately drove to pick it up. She unwrapped it. She stared at it. She tried putting it on the dining room table, then in the kitchen, then finally settled on the night table in what had been their bedroom. She waited until dusk to rummage around for where he’d kept the lighter.
After catching the flame on the wick, she stared at it as it flickered. She smelled nothing, but they’d told her it could take a minute. She should try to relax and enjoy it, they said. Finally she laid on the bed, starfishing in an attempt to take up space for two, and closed her eyes to concentrate as the candle started to waft emotion through the air.
She smelled his t-shirts first, then his aftershave, and the honeysuckle at the Arboretum, and the vaguest whiff of peri peri chicken. She would need to learn how to make it for herself now. It wouldn’t be as good.
It burned longer, and she smelled the popcorn at the Laemmle and the sidewalk urine at the art walk and his weird organic toothpaste. Fucking sexy organic toothpaste, now that she got to smell it again. She reached her hands slowly down her torso, imagining they were his. What the fuck else was she supposed to do right now, smelling him so strongly. The brochure had said nothing about how to cope with the sensation. He was here he was here he was here and she was alone and would always be alone. He was here he was here he was here
Her lower lip shook. Was she broken now? Had he broken her for other people? Could she put herself back together alone? She worked her fingers lower and breathed him in harder. He was here he was here he was here.
A few minutes of sobbing, sensing, silence, and then a heady blast of the Santa Anas through the open window blew extinguishing smoke into her face. She came, and he was gone.
Hannah Rose Roberts is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her cartoon caption once appeared in The New Yorker, and her Halloween costume once appeared in Cosmopolitan. With a background spanning film, editorial, and marketing, her publications run the gamut from Architectural Digest to Arc Digital. She lives in Los Angeles—walking distance from both a library and a bookstore—and she exists on social media as @hanalyst.