Thomas leans his head against the fuselage and looks down through the Lexan window. The homes remind him of a town model his father had once made in their attic when he was a young boy. The streets, like small veins, separate the cluster of suburban Floridian homes. Their peaked roofs are all two-toned from the sunset. He imagines his house, empty and distant, buried beneath the cover of an elevated train in South Queens, and how the sun will peak from behind the steel columns for that brief moment outside his kitchen window, and how he won’t be there to see it. Then the beaches come into view, and before he’s ready, the interminable ocean overtakes his perspective. It feels as if he’s left the earth’s atmosphere, left all time and place, and it’s only then he feels he’s truly left.
Many years had passed since he and Evelyn visited the Bahamas on their honeymoon; it seems as if it were a dream, a dream threatening to be forgotten. The memories of their younger selves have been reduced to still shots: her laughter, her smile, her blonde hair wildly flailing like the thirsty fingertips of fire in front of a backdrop of white sand flash-fade in his mind. Over the forty years of marriage, they had not traveled off the continent since. And every year of the last seven she’s been gone he’s thought about the moments more.
There’s a jarring ding, and the stewardess tells the passengers to prepare for landing in Nassau, Bahamas. She tells them to plan for warm weather and overcast skies. Thomas doesn’t remember the Bahamas with a single cloud in the sky.
His first stop after settling into his hotel is Captain Beach. She had loved to watch the boats come in and out of the harbor. A sailboat was her dream that never came true, but she was content in fantasizing. Being there now brings the memory back slowly as if submerged in hypo. He can almost feel her arms wrapped around his waist again, the fabric of his white unbuttoned shirt no longer flapping in the breeze (or it could have been light blue). She fantasized about where they would go, what they would do with their time at sea, and how long they would stay in different places. He remembers they had spoken about these things as they watched the boats, but he doesn’t remember her exact words. He recalls the sun setting over the water with a rising twin, both white and full, but he doesn’t remember if it made him squint.
Thomas decides to walk a while. He pulls the brim of his stained white ball cap up to wipe the sweat from his brow. The humidity makes him want a cocktail. Peering down the long dead-end of Resolute Road, he spots a small pub tucked away behind the cover of palm trees. The faint din of Caribbean music guides him, and he finds himself alone at the end of a dirty bartop. He sits in a tall wicker stool and waits. A young man emerges from the rear room, surprised to see Thomas.
“My friend, you scared me sitting there like a damned gargoyle. Let me get you something tropical.” The man grins.
Thomas removes his cap, places it on the bar next to him, notices the sweat stain around the brim, and then hides it on the seat near him. “I need something to quench my thirst, pal, how’s about a tall bourbon, two stones.”
The bartender laughs and says, “That I can do for sure, my friend, but please call me Idris.” He sings the last syllable like a snake hissing.
Idris slides the bourbon in front of Thomas, watching him look into the glass as if having a prayer with it. “There are many drinks to be had alone, but whiskey isn’t one of them,” Idris says and pours himself a finger of the same spirit. Idris clinks the glasses and takes a sip. Thomas takes a long pull and forces a smile, flashing yellow stained and tired teeth under an arctic white mustache.
They sit alone and talk, hit all the milestones of conversation about life, love, and philosophy, both aware to steer clear of politics and religion. Time passes, but the sun is still high and hides behind the slate of white. It’s odd how time chooses to still itself occasionally.
Idris lights a cigarette and half sits on the edge of the ice bin. He offers one to Thomas, who declines. “So, Thomas, now that you are here, and I have heard your story of your Evelyn, how do you feel now, being back here after all this time?”
“A wise man once said that no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”
“Aye, I shall drink with you on that.” Idris finishes his drink, glassy-eyed, and with his lips wet, he says, “And this wise man, he is you?”
“No.” Thomas laughs. “Heraclitus.”
“I like this Heraclitus. And I like you, Thomas.”
“Aye, I suppose I am.” Idris unfurls a lion’s guffaw. “And you are my friend.” Idris turns to the register and takes a notepad and begins writing something. He hands a small, blank receipt paper to Thomas. Idris had drawn a quick map, drunken lines slaloming as if the path written by a drunk is meant to be walked by one.
“What is this?” Thomas says.
“Wait till sunset and go here. This street hasn’t a name. It is small between a row of homes just a mile from here.”
“Why am I going to this place that doesn’t have a name?”
“You will find my uncle. His name is Jasper. Tell him you are my friend. He will know what to do for you from then.”
“I might just be too drunk for this, Idris.”
“Aye, you might be. But something tells me you come a long way for something you haven’t found. Yes, you come a long way, and I like you.” Idris laughs again, and the laughter echoes down past the low treeline just as a gust shimmies the branches.
Thomas winds his way through Nassau’s dark streets, trying his best not to stumble into tourists who watch him closely. He’s tired, and the whiskey has made his breath stale, and his head throb. The last turn on the map should be coming up along the side of one-story homes. Just as it seems there isn’t a path as shown on Idris’s map, he spots a break in the homes. He sees a faint glow of light flickering ahead of him. There’s a small alleyway lit by a small firepit, and it’s lined with a battered chain-linked fence. A short black dog pants and appears at his side; it faces him, watches him, and seemingly waits for him. The dog walks deeper down the alley before stopping and looking back at him again. He assigns the dog the name Virgil, and he likes him. Every time Thomas stops walking, the dog stops and looks back at him over its shoulder. “Okay, Virgil. I’ll follow,” he says.
The alley acts as a shortcut between two streets, and the many small sheds that are locked appear to store products and carts belonging to street merchants. A single shed is open, and a warm light flickers out onto the path. Thomas slowly approaches as if underwater, legs empty of energy, thirsty for oxygen. An old man sits just inside the battered wooden doors, lighting candles labeled with white masking tape and placing them in a wheeled cart. The old man watches Thomas struggling to catch his breath and swings a small stool from behind him for Thomas to sit.
“Young man, have you come this way for candles?”
“Young man? That’s a good one,” Thomas says and wipes the sweat from his brow with his hairy forearm.
“If you’re lost, you are not far.” The old man turns to point presumably toward the beach where the nearest hotels are, but Thomas cuts him off.
“I’m not lost.”
“So you are here to purchase a candle. I have scents you cannot find anywhere else in the world.”
Thomas looks at the candle on the table between them labeled ‘'Vanilla" and says, “I’m not sure that’s true.”
The old man deadpans him.
Thomas peers into the old man’s eyes and says, “Are you...Jasper?”
The old man’s eyelids flutter then narrow. “Who sends you here, young man?”
“I believe I am a friend of your nephew, Idris.”
“You believe you are, or you are?”
“So, you’re a drunkard. I haven’t time for drunkards. You should go.”
“I’m no drunkard. I am here to find my wife.” The words come out as if they were a dagger driven into the tabletop between them.
“Stubborn like my nephew. Go on. Tell me your story. Tell me why you sit here now.”
Thomas tells Jasper his story over a warm glass of water. Periodically, Jasper interjects, requesting vivid details, material and emotional.
“That will be all,” Jasper says and kneels down beside a closed door at the shed’s rear. He returns with a kit of many small bottles with presumably different scents. Thomas watches him and tries his best not to fall asleep. Jasper mixes oils in a mortar and pestle then fills a small glass cylinder with the mixture and hands it to Thomas wrapped in brown paper.
“What’s this? Thomas says.
“Listen to me. Go home now. You light this. Let it burn as you sleep. Don’t burn your house to the ground. A drunkard shouldn’t have candles. Now go.” Jasper covers the vanilla candle quickly with a small tin hat, a whisper of smoke hovering between them like a specter. Jasper closes the door to the shed, locks it, and leaves with his cart.
The candle ignites with a flash and a whisper before settling into a small dancing blue flame. The hotel room is frigid, and Thomas is too tired to shower. He barely has the strength to toss the comforter aside before collapsing on the mattress and into instant REM sleep.
A dream, even when lucid and vivid, is still a dream. Dreams often feel like a distant present silhouetted in a veil of dark fog. This was not that. This is a removal of place and body. Thomas stands at the Bahamas’ retaining wall, feels the breeze on his skin, tastes the salt air, and looks at his much younger hands. And he senses her next to him before he sees her.
“My God. My good God. Evelyn.” He grabs her by the arms, paws her face, her hair.
“Easy now, tiger. As if the salty air isn’t messing my hair up enough,” she says.
“I cannot believe this.”
“Believe it, Thomas.”
“This has to be a dream,” he says into the ether across the ocean.
Evelyn ties her arm into his, and they look out at the water and watch the boats in the harbor. “That one right there.” She points, and her wedding ring glints blue. “We’ll have one just like that, won’t we, tiger? Where would we sail to? Down the east coast, of course. It’s not too big, is it?”
He looks at her as she lays her head on his shoulder. He knows the future, and his eyes begin to well, threatening to spill. He wonders if she knows too. He wonders if this place is real, and he runs his free hand along the concrete of the wall feeling every abrasion against his fingers.
“Yes, Ev, we will have one just like that. I promise.”
“You promise?” she says with a hint of skepticism.
He turns to her, unties his arm from hers slowly, and kisses her. He feels the rough warmth between his budding mustache and her upper lip. Their tongues briefly meet as if having a kiss of their own. He presses his body against hers, feeling her breasts against his chest, and he feels a pack of cigarettes in his front pocket.
“I want to stay here forever. In this moment,” he says.
“Oh, tiger, you know we can’t. You will go back very soon.”
The realization that Evelyn understands they saw merely a glimpse, a moment returned, saddens him as much as it frightens him.
“I can’t stay?”
“Yes, tiger. We have only a moment. But it’s a genuine moment.”
“What is this place, Ev?”
“This is just a place where we are. That’s all.”
He pulls the pack of cigarettes from his pocket, studies the familiar font that reads "Pall Mall.” He opens the box and pulls the matches from the cellophane and lights it in a cupped hand. The taste of sulfur is distantly familiar, as is the sweet tobacco heat that follows. She sticks her hand out, expecting a cigarette as well, but Thomas denies her, places the pack back in his shirt pocket, and she scowls at him. He looks at her, her hand, the diamond glinting blue again, and his lips tremble. He studies her, trying to fill all the missing snapshots and sharpen the faded ones. “Evelyn?”
“Yes, tiger?” He takes another drag of the cigarette, expecting a cough that doesn’t come.
“Thomas, we don’t have much more time.”
He takes the cigarette and presses the cherry into his wrist. The embers flutter off with the wind like small comets. “I…I am sorry. I am so sorry.” He sobs, and she lifts her hand to cradle his face, to wipe the streaming tears. The blue glint from the diamond flickers brightly and dims before it’s gone.
The bedding in his hotel room is saturated in sweat, and a yeasty smell fills the room. A flat disk of wax is all that remains of the candle on his nightstand, and he leaps to it with both hands trying to salvage what he can, but it crumbles like white soil. The memory of that day at the harbor is renewed, but it’s still only a memory, and now it haunts him. He leaves the hotel in a fever.
Jasper’s shack in the alleyway is locked, and most of the merchants have left with their carts already. The alley is desolate. Even the dog he named Virgil is gone. He shakes the door, shakes the lock, decides against breaking it. He goes back to the bar to see Idris, and like yesterday, his bartender friend stands alone watching a soccer match on a small television.
Idris sighs when he sees him. “Woah, my good friend. Pardon me, but you don’t look well. Like shit, in fact.”
“I need to find your uncle.”
“Smell a little bit too.” He waves his hand, swatting imaginary flies.
“Idris, please.” Thomas sighs the last of the energy he has.
“Thomas, sit down, you look like you’re going to topple over. I will fix you up.”
Idris hands him a collins glass filled with orange juice, cola, rum, and a tablet that makes the drink fizz. Thomas downs the drink.
“I need to find your uncle Jasper,” he says impatiently.
“My uncle. He is not too happy with me right now. These things, they’re tricky. Sometimes they’re good for you, sometimes they’re not so good. Thomas, I do think this case might be the latter. You must go home. Go home. What he gave you was real, and you take it with you. Be happy with that and go home.”
“You don’t understand. What he gave me was home, Goddamit.” Thomas backhands the glass sending it spiraling down the bar before resting in the corner.
“You listen here, old man. I am withdrawing my welcome to you. You go now, or I will make you go.”
They stare each other down; Idris’s eyes are lidless.
Thomas stands up gingerly, his eyes seething. “I’m going.”
“And take a bath, you stinky old man.”
Wandering the streets and questioning the merchants without success well into the night exhausts Thomas. He works back to the alley of the merchant’s shacks and camps next to Jasper’s. He falls asleep in the dry dirt.
He wakes to Virgil licking the sweat from his face in the early morning. Thomas pets the dog, happy to see him.
“I have no more business with you. One hundred scented candles couldn’t remove such a stench. Leave my place,” Jasper says, standing over him silhouetted behind fluorescent white sunlight.
Thomas closes his eyes and says, “I can’t.”
“You must, and you will.”
Jasper leans down and says, “You stink of a drunkard, but worse, you stink of something much worse. I will not be your dealer. If I see you again, I will have you arrested.”
“I need one candle, Jasper. That’s all, one last candle. You will never see me again. I promise.”
“A drunkard’s promise. That is a laugh,” Jasper bellows.
“Please. I will take it home and never return.”
“You want to visit a place so badly, must be quite the place. I could only imagine what horrors you have done. You may go to that place, drunkard; you may choose a different path, but what you’ve done in the past will only blend with what you will do in the revisit. You understand this?” Jasper, realizing that Thomas won’t relent, says, “One candle. If I see you again after—”
“Thank you,” Thomas says. The excitement conjures up a brightness in him, and he leans to his side, pulling his wallet from his pocket.
“No. I don’t want your money. I am buying your riddance. You come back tonight. Clean yourself. You come back sober. Sober. It will last longer when you tell me about the place. The more details, the better. I will make your candle for you. But you are truly the one who makes it. The candle needs pure truth. This will be your one and only attempt. Now go.”
Days later, Thomas sits in his kitchen and sees a glimpse of the sun as it falls beneath the elevated train outside the window. It’s there only long enough for him to smile as the evening quickly replaces it. He sits alone at his kitchen table with a glass of wine that he doesn’t sip from, a meal he doesn’t eat, and he looks around his home and imagines her in it. The small candle, white with swirls of vermilion, sits as a stoic dinner guest across from him on the table. He talks to it. He anticipates taking it to the bedroom as he would his Evelyn in their early days. And when he is tired enough, he does. He sets it up on his nightstand, lights it, and a crimson flame erupts before it settles to the dancing blue. He lies beside it under the comforter and watches it flicker before he falls asleep.
She lies in their bed, in the bedroom unchanged over the years, a slick sheen of sweat across her pallid skin, her face gaunt and hollow. It takes Thomas a moment to root himself into the place. The reality is sharp, except she’s here with him. She lays in their bed, eyes fluttering and fighting to stay open, and he sits next to her. He remembers sitting where he sits now as if that were a dream.
From the kitchen, a tea kettle whistles crescendoing like an approaching train. He goes to it. A thin porcelain cup emblazoned with pink flowers and green vines around the rim waits with a bag of red tea and honey already pooled at the bottom. A red flame fierce like ruby fingers violently lap beneath the kettle. He removes it and fills the cup; water darkens to rust under faint steam. He takes a small brown bottle from his pocket, fills the dropper all the way, and enters the serving into the tea. He does it again, as he did many years ago. It’s all the same, every feeling, the twisting in his stomach, the warm tea near his hand, except this time he opens the cupboard and grabs another cup, another bag of tea, adds another spoon of honey, and two full servings from the dropper of the small brown bottle.
He sets the tea down on the nightstand and waits a while. He lifts her head and adds a pillow. She’s not asleep, but she’s not awake. He leans down and kisses her cool, damp forehead, and a tear escapes from the corner of her eye and rolls down her cheek.
“Small sips, sweetheart,” he says as he tips the glass carefully past her chapped lips. She drinks and swallows, and he gives it to her again and again until the tea is gone. But this time, in this place, he takes the tea as well. He picks it up in his hand and glances at his wrist. He smiles before drinking it in a single effort, and then he crawls into the bed.