The Smoker’s Candle
by S Lynn Knight
Heller lay in a rumpled bed watching the small black and white Magnavox, its rabbit ears tipped with balls of tin foil. His life hadn’t exactly been a ‘run for the roses’. His nightly routine of self indulgent habits, regrets and self loathing hangs over him in a muddled haze of second hand smoke.
On the nightstand, the ashtray is full of a day’s worth of KOOLS smoked to the bitter end. Heller smashes another filtered fireball into the glass and feels the heat travel up his yellowed fingers. Finally, he works up the will to raise his wirey body and empty the full bladder he’s been ignoring for the last hour. His sense of smell is uncharacteristically keen tonight. He actually notices the pungent stench of sweat and cigarettes in the air. It annoys him.
On his way back from the toilet he grabs the box of Lord Byron’s Smoker’s Candles his late wife had stashed in the cupboard, but never once lit. He was certain he didn’t know who Lord Byron was, but he’d bet his last nickel he’d say his bedroom ‘stank to high heaven’.
Crowding a candle onto the nightstand next to the full ashtray, he settles his head back against the pomade stained pillowcase for the long night ahead. Getting sleepy sooner than he expected, Heller absently plunges his leathery hand down into the front pocket of his worn chinos and retrieves the zippo, lights the stubby candle and another cigarette. In the corner, the Magnavox flickers like a time machine opening a portal back into a silent movie. The last thing Heller remembers is the faint voice of Ed McMahon as he summons the star of The Tonight Show, “And now, heeerrrrre’s Johnny!”
It’s 1:43 am. On the headboard, the Regency radio scanner is busy chasing a string of red, plastic buttons, causing them to blink in quiet succession. The radio, continuously scanning its ten channels for the call will dutifully halt the light show in its tracks in the event of a fire. Once stopped, there’s maybe a half second delay before the small box begins to emit a penetrating wail sure to secure the rapt attention of anyone within 50 yards, no matter where they might be cavorting to or from in dreamland.
Johnny and his wife are fast asleep, curled into one another, his front to her back; also sound asleep, are three little girls divvied up between two small bedrooms off the main hallway. The dog inhales and inspects the air for anything out of order, finding nothing alarming she exhales contentedly.
When the shrieking begins, it bounces from the headboard and dislodges the quiet from the house, and everyone in it from their slumber. The thin walls dividing them are no match for the exclamations of surprise and haste coming from Johnny and murmurs of concern from his wife. The girls listen, but don’t dare themselves to get out of bed, not until they hear their father in the living room about to leave. Then, all three of his daughters come rushing to his side, eyes sparkling with worry and excitement, imploring their father to turn the car’s red whirling lights on before he speeds away. Johnny pushes the toggle switch to the ‘on’ position, and smiles to himself before putting the car in drive. His taillights disappear around the corner and the night is quiet again.
In minutes, he’s on the scene. Experience tells him, the wood-frame, single- family structure, mostly belching reams of dark smoke at the moment, won’t be able to hold off the inevitable flame burst once its gulped enough air. Johnny quickly gets a report. One known occupant, an elderly man named Heller is still inside the home.
Donning his oxygen tank and breathing mask, Johnny quickly enters the billowy darkness and is immediately forced on all fours by the other worldly heat and smoke. He feels his way through the home as he searches each room calling out Heller’s name. His muffled voice rattles his own ear drums as he forces it out from behind the mask.
The house is whistling and groaning. The roof begins to sag under the pressure of heat and water, threatening to oblige the beckoning flames by caving in at any moment. Johnny enters the last room and he’s startled first by a glimmer of light piercing the wall of thick smoke then by the thud of his boot against an unyielding obstacle. The bed frame! The sudden jostling of the bed and mattress wakes Heller and he bolts upright into a sitting position. This brings him nose to face mask with Johnny who must appear to Heller to be an alien creature from another world. Both men are startled by the other and emit suitable bug-eyed salutations.
Hoisting the boney frame of the old man by his arms onto his back, Johnny quickly picks his way to the front entry where the door had once hung and exits the house as it’s quickly engulfed by flames. He calls for his men to get clear of the structure and initiates a roll call to account for everyone only moments before the structure collapses into a crematorium.
The fire changed more than Mr Heller’s address. He never burned another candle of any sort, nor did he smoke another cigarette after the harrowing night of what he came to regard as, not only his rescue, but his resurrection. Once he’d fully recovered and settled in his new place, he took up the habit of dropping by the fire house regularly just to shake Johnny’s hand in gratitude and remind himself how lucky he was to be alive. And he relished every opportunity to tell anyone who’d listen how a star named Johnny had saved his life.
Every night this week, I’ve joined the efforts to LUMLUTW in the small way I could. It certainly hasn’t been much or enough, but it’s what I could do, where I could do it. It’s my belief when each of us remembers to “do what we can, where we can,” together we’ll shift into a new age when love, life and peace for all living beings is our highest value and purpose and the crowning achievement of humanity.
Let us not look at the match that strikes the flame, but instead look deep into the flame itself until we see ourselves as one light, one life, one love. ~
Author’s note: The Smoker’s Candle is a modestly fictionalized account of the story my Dad told of one of his first fire rescues. To his credit, my Dad, retired with 34 years of service as a firefighter in my hometown. 32 of those years he served the community and his fellow firefighters as their Fire Chief.