I remember how terrified I was when I got my first job; how my mother had to come with me and help me apply. Yet somehow, the crazy man who whistled Jimmy Buffet and chain-smoked all day long took a chance on me.
He taught me how to take hold of the long wick; quickly, effortlessly slide the mold into one vibrant color of hot, slick wax; do the same in a tub of cooler water, wiping it clean with one swipe of my bare hand to assure no bubbles would sneak attack the next pristine layer; then return to the wax.
First color 10 dips. Next color 10 dips. Last color 10 dips. Don’t lose count, one single extra layer could jeopardize the entire operation.
Don’t forget the water dip in between every wax dip, can’t let the colors mix. And for God’s sake, swipe off those nasty bubbles. But do it quickly. Hang it up for the Candleman to do what he does best, whistle and chain-smoke and carve wax, threaten my shirtless, delinquent friends, promise to put a boot up their ass. Get a new mold, start dipping again.
There was an array of different candles; infinite combinations of colors and number of dips. In the beginning I wasn’t capable of handling the customers. Customers were much too fragile; I was much too fragile. Wax was sturdy. I could handle wax.
At fourteen years old, I had my first job. A job that consisted of no sitting, endless dipping, a small shop full of smoke, but not my own, never allowed to be my own.
Sometimes I would walk the dog. Yes, we had a shop dog. Other times I would help to carry the boxes of wax inside, get yelled at for not being strong enough to carry something my weight or more, find a joint in the van, think about stealing it, don’t.
Every day one of my shirtless friends would sit on the railing in front of the shop. Public property. My boss wasn’t afraid of Hercules. My boss had a boot made for putting up asses.
Sometimes they would brave the boot, play with the gum machine next to the door. My boss didn’t care about the twenty-five cents. Out came the boot. Off they went.
Every now and then one wouldn’t understand the dynamic; they would come inside. The boot didn’t threaten them, just asked them for money, and then to leave. Every time this happened, once they left the whistling would get louder, the smoke thicker, the dipping more intense.
“Go ahead, say it.” Candleman would taunt me. “Jackass,” I would reply. This made me proud. Candleman laughed, I laughed; I dipped, he carved.
Soon I was ready. Ready for the delicate customers. I learned the routine, the speech, the gestures; which candle to pick up, which to avoid. When my first victims came in, I greeted them, welcomed them, guided them and educated them. I took them on a journey into the world of wax, wicks, flames.
Some were interested in shapes, some scents, others sports. Either way, we had a candle for that. A candle I had dipped. A candle that had seen a grown man threaten numerous adolescents, had heard private conversations, witnessed very strange relationships.
If the travelers were smart enough to buy a candle, once they got it home, found it’s perfect place, lit it- their new addition would tell a story; the shadows dancing on the wall told all about a girl finding her way, an old man losing his, and countless teenagers along for the ride.
I can’t tell you how many times I dipped, or how many times I repeated the same words to random strangers and walked them around the tiny shop, telling them all about two-and-a-half walls covered with candles I didn’t care about, embedded with my sweat, tears, thoughts, dreams, disappointments.. maybe a little blood.
However, no matter how many times I performed these mundane tasks, no matter how often I called my boss a jackass, or picked up his dog’s shit, or begged him to let me smoke, or stole a drag when he wasn’t looking; no matter how well I did my job, the parts I got paid for and those that I didn’t, I never thought I would be cash-register worthy.
But one day, that time did come. And after it did, my time with the Candeman turned into a blur.
I dipped, I lectured, I joked, smoked, toked. I watched a never-ending war between a boot and a bare chest. I pushed buttons, made change. One summer I even traveled to Cape May, was left alone. Did the same there, without the dipping, joking, smoking, toking, or boot-chest war. With fudge, without the fun.
I would get fired, then called in to work the next day. I would quit, then show up like nothing happened. It was a never-ending process.
Until one day, it wasn’t. John Skinker got sick, moved away, ended his Candleman career. My love of candles faded. My shirtless friends covered up. Boots went back on feet. Smoking became prohibited on the boardwalk, along with dogs. We all grew up, or grew old.
And candles just aren’t the same without a jackass carving them.