In his office, Harris pulls out a fifth of Evan Williams and drops it onto his desk with the distinct, dull clunk of glass on wood. He unscrews the top of his leak-proof travel mug and pours the alcohol inside. I sit across from him scrolling through the feeds on my phone. I'm not really reading, just trying to avoid witnessing the excessive alcoholic intake of my employer, the way one might avoid looking directly at someone dressing in a locker room.
“I never told you this, Amy,” Harris says, “but in his interview, Rick asked me, 'Have you ever put a man completely inside wax? Like Lando Calrissian in Star Wars,' and I said, 'If you're talking about the carbonite thing, then I think you mean Han Solo,' and he said, 'No, it was Lando Calrissian,' and I said, 'What's your point? Why would anybody do that?' and Rick said, 'Preservation,' Then he put a finger to his lips and said, 'And salvation.'”
“What does that even mean?” I ask.
“It's deep, right?” Harris says.
“I would not say deep.”
Harris props his sandals up on the desk, tactfully aiming his legs to spare me the view up his cut-off shorts. Harris is bow-legged, knobby-kneed, and drives a beat-to-shit Karmann Ghia peppered with rust guard. He wears his hair long despite a thinning crown. As the owner of Waximus Maximus, the most popular and only candle store in town, Harris has definitively succeed in one thing, keeping us from going out of business.
Harris watches Rick, through the large picture window of the office, trimming candle wicks.
“It's only been a few weeks and look at him. He's good, right?”
“He's fine,” I say.
The walls of Harris's office are lined with cardboard boxes stacked six or seven high. The contents of these boxes–old candle recipes, the stirrups from a Mets' uniform, flip-phones, a meat thermometer–spill out into the room. Between the gaps in our conversation, I can hear the pattering of rat feet moving through and over the boxes. I lift my feet from the floor and tuck them under my legs. In the room's humid air, I detect overtones of tears and semen.
Harris leans back in his chair and exhales a burst of vapor from his e-cig. Knocking off a thirty-year-old, pack-a-day habit, he doesn't ever seem to exhale anymore without a monstrous cloud.
“If we do this, we're going to need more staff,” he says.
“I don't think you know how cryogenics works,” I say.
“What's G-Todd up to these days?”
Unless you count making electronic music on a home recording studio as a job, G-Todd, my roommate, hasn't had steady employment for years.
“G-Todd is freelancing,” I say.
“Perfect. Get him in here.” Harris pulls out a sheet of paper and starts scribbling. “We'll use a wooden box, like a coffin, for the mold. And a breathing tube that will stick out of the finished wax.”
“This is not cryogenics,” I say. “Cryogenics is when you freeze someone and they go into hibernation.”
He ignores me, belches softly, and continues his sketching. Harris copes rather well, tanked-up; he doesn't slur his words or stumble. He behaves more like a man with a gauze bandage wrapped around his head, his vision and hearing mildly diffused. But something is different about his soused reverie since Rick was hired. Harris's eyes hover and pause between thoughts even longer than usual. It's like he's been hypnotized or body-snatched.
That afternoon, a delivery truck beeps up to the Waximus Maximus loading dock. G-Todd arrives wearing his vintage, Billy Joel Storm Front T-shirt. Perhaps the shift from computer screen to physical labor accounts for his eagerness to work. He unloads wood from the truck, his hands protected by oversized leather gloves. G-Todd is stocky, not the brightest, but knows how to properly clean our toilet. He doesn't challenge me or ask me why I watch so much TV, like boyfriends tend to do, which is why we have remained roommates since college, 10 years last Spring.
While I label Cookies 'n Cream jar candles, G-Todd fills the warehouse with the buzz of a circular saw and the clanking of lumber drop-offs striking the floor. He consults the drawings Harris has made for him, turning the page upside down, then right-side up. We leave him to it, as he hammers and curses his way through a job nobody else wants to do.
Before he left for the Wednesday afternoon happy hour at Teddy's Bar, Harris dropped a bag full of snorkels in my lap. I have been assigned the design of the breathing apparatus. Because the subject will lie on his or her back, we need a snorkel that will not have the typical U-bend in it. I have removed the rubber mouthpiece from one of the snorkels, sliced off the “U” shape and am attempting to re-affix the mouthpiece to the breathing pipe. I've tried and failed with three different types of StikTite brand glues, all of which boast rubber and plastic in their list of bondable materials. The potent fumes bore through my nostrils and drill straight into my brain.
In search of ibuprofen, I enter Harris's office. On his computer, his web browser is open to a video of baby pigs rampaging a kiddie pool, splashing and oinking themselves into an adorable frenzy. After my fourth viewing of the video, I notice a document on the computer titled “newspaper ad.” I click it open.
Feeling a bit unwanted in the vast and unforgiving post-graduate job market? Not wanting to move back in with your parents? Suffering debilitating depression or a disease with no cure? Whatever your reason, Waximus Maximus now offers full cryogenic services.*
Now's the time to wait until later when things will surely be better!
I close the document and observe Rick from behind the window of the office. He's pouring wax into a mold that creates a spiral candle composed of two intertwining candles of hibiscus and lavender scents. The steam from the vats rises and clouds the bulbous skylights of the warehouse 30 feet overhead. I take small comfort that at least one of us is still making candles.
Rick has a lazy eye and people (white) say he resembles that one actor whose name they can't remember (Forest Whitaker), thinking they're handing him a compliment. Rick is just out of college, svelte and smooth, like a sea lion. He doesn't speak much—not at all to me—and yet somehow exudes charisma. His first week here, I caught Rick staring at me while I was on a ladder taking inventory. Although it made me self-conscious, I pretended not to notice. I continued working with my hip cocked and my head tilted in a pose I thought might flatter me. Rick continued to watch. I began to believe, my body flaring with possibility, that such a sustained attention could only mean he was attracted to me, until I realized his intense stare was just the hollow, uncontrolled gaze of his lazy eye and that he wasn't looking at me at all.
Rick removes candles from the drying rack, his movements deliberate like a dancer. He trims the wicks using just the tips of the scissor blades, like someone working with flowers, preparing stems for a bouquet. Rick doesn't cut, he snips.
“You do the freezing here, right?”
The girl is college-aged, short and pretty in her tight shorts. Three days have passed since we finished constructing Harris's idea of cryogenic equipment. I was hoping, beyond evidence, that people were smarter than I thought and that nobody would respond to the ad.
She introduces herself as Paxton while filling out the application Harris has given her. She scratches one of her tan legs with the back end of the pen and repeatedly flips her glossy hair over her shoulder where it refuses to stay. When she's finished, she strips, without pomp and with surprising ease, in front of us. The men half-heartedly avert their eyes. Harris leads her to the box which has been placed on a table. She takes hold of his outstretched hand for balance and climbs inside. After a series of clumsy tilts, Paxton maneuvers into a horizontal position. Her hair clumps in a tangled nest at the bottom of the box. While the guys discuss a solution to the issue, I reach inside, twist her hair up into a bun, and stab a pencil through it to hold it in place. The girl smiles at me nervously. I can't muster enough sympathy to smile back at her. Tough titties, I want to say. You're alone and a little bit scared, but maybe you shouldn't be doing things like this. That's what I want to say. But instead, I just don't smile at her, which is pretty much the same thing.
Harris opens a ball valve and hot wax flows into the box. The temperature has been lowered to sub-scalding and while they've tested it out on each other's arms and legs, they've never done a full submersion. They're just going for it, whole hog. Rick balances the snorkel in Paxton's mouth until the wax can rise to hold it in place. Her eyes bug when the first wave touches her ass and shoulder blades. We all watch, unashamed to stare, as the taupe substance swells over her legs, stomach, breasts, and chin. I know that what I'm witnessing is morally irresponsible and probably illegal, but I can't bring myself to stop it. Paxton closes her eyes tightly in a wince. My blood pumps furiously through my body. As the final wave engulfs her, I'm exhilarated by the sensation that I have just watched a beautiful woman being snuffed out. Almost as soon as I have this thought, I feel choked by my conscience. My mouth opens, but no words come out in protest.
Harris closes the ball valve. Tiny moans vibrate from the end of the snorkel.
“Are you alright in there, Paxton?” Harris asks. The grunted reply, either “uh-huh” or “unn-uh” is indistinguishable.
“Yes or no?” Harris says. “Alright?”
“Nyaaysh,” comes the toot through the tube.
We stare silently at the box until Rick says, “I guess it was Han Solo.”
“Now what?” G-Todd asks.
“Now... nothing,” Harris says. “When there's a cure for...” he darts over to the desk, grabs Paxton's application, and runs a finger over her answers before continuing, “... herpes, we simply melt the wax and out she comes, not a day older than today.”
“I'm hungry,” says Rick. “Let's get some food.” Then, from the snorkel tip comes a squeaking voice.
“I haff uh pee.”
Harris walks over to the girl, scanning her application as if it contains an answer.
“Can you hold it?” he asks the pool of wax.
“Unn-uh.” Harris walks back over to us head down pensively. When he's gathered us all together in a huddle, he mutters, “Casa de Pasta?”
The 2.3 stars Casa de Pasta has earned on Yelp has yet to deter our desire to walk less than 70 feet for a meal. The waitstaff dresses in a cartoonish approximation of matadors, their embroidered epaulettes more Cap'n Crunch than bullfighter. The confused, Spanish theme of an Italian restaurant is crowned by velvet paintings of bulls hanging from the walls. Everything else–Pepsi branded cups, hi-definition sporting events, icy air-conditioning–is decidedly American.
We debate how to proceed. None of us knows how a catheter works. I chime in that, also, none of us know how cryogenics works either. G-Todd takes my comment as an indication that we can overcome the obstacle by boring a hole through the wax and inserting a tube into the girl's urethra. I'm shocked that he knows the word. Rick and Harris clearly don't so I clarify:
“Her pussy part where the pee comes out.”
“We drill a hole. Problem solved,” Harris says.
“Doesn't she still need to eat?” G-Todd asks.
“She doesn't need to eat,” Rick says, dipping his crust into a saucer of ranch dressing.
“Yes, she does,” I say. “We really need to rethink this.”
“What about bears when they hibernate?” G-Todd asks.
“She needs food and she needs to relieve herself,” I say. “We have to go melt that girl out of there right now.”
“It's my call,” Harris says, lowering his head to within inches of his plate. Across the room a waitress wipes marinara sauce off the wall with her cape. Confident that the waitress is not watching, Harris exhales his illicit vaping exhaust under the table. “I never put you in charge of this, Amy.”
When we get back to Waximus Maximus, there is a couple sitting on the sidewalk outside the door. Harris unlocks it, flips around the “Be Right Back!” sign and asks if they need some candles.
“We want to be frozen,” the girl says. Their eyes, puffy and bloodshot, betray a bout of recent crying.
“Technically it's not freezing...” G-Todd says.
“Come on in,” Rick says holding the door open and gazing off into the street. “You just need to fill out some paperwork and we'll get you all set up.”
Once inside, Rick and G-Todd set to work pulling the solidified block of wax containing Paxton from the mold. G-Todd dollies her to a corner and props her there. I follow Harris into his office. He plops down in his chair and unscrews his bottle of bourbon from which he chugs directly. “We seriously have to stop this,” I say.
“Check that out,” Harris says with a nod at the window behind me. I turn around to witness G-Todd boring a hole with a brace and bit into the wax at Paxton's crotch. Harris leans back in his chair causing the ancient springs to squeal under pressure. He closes his eyes.
“What's the matter with you?” I ask.
“Well, in answer to your first question, nothing.”
“I only asked one question.” Harris opens his eyes and regards me.
“I want to do it,” he says. “Be frozen. I'm tired of the present, tired of all this drinking. And... I'm not aging as well as I'd hoped.” Harris fingers the loose skin running from his chin to his neck.
“This doesn't solve any of those problems.”
“If I was in the wax, I wouldn't be able to drink. I would have no choice but to detox.”
I turn away from Harris and look out at the production floor. The couple that were sitting on the sidewalk are now naked. The guy is in the box and G-Todd is holding his breathing tube. Rick slowly opens the valve to let the wax in.
“This is Rick's doing,” I say. “He's pushing this whole people-in-wax idea on you.”
“This isn't about you, Amy. I want this.”
“He's doing it... controlling you, I don't know... subconsciously.”
“And what are you trying to do?”
I would never tell Harris this, but during a frustrating period last year, I applied for other jobs. It was not a successful endeavor. Even jobs I should have qualified for because of my marketing degree, employers wanted someone fresh, not someone whose graduation in the field was 10 years latent. I never thought I would be at Waximus Maximus this long. I took this job for the simple reasons that it was easy and Harris liked me. It was only supposed to be a temporary postponement of real life.
I step out of the office. Rick has completed filling the box with the guy inside. The girl is in a corner, putting her clothes back on. G-Todd and Rick are whispering to each other.
“This one recording I made has 48 percussion tracks,” G-Todd says. “In a single piece. But you know, the world's not ready for that yet.”
“You're ahead of your time,” Rick says.
“You're a perfect candidate for cryogenics. Pop out in a decade, you're a superstar.”
“Skip over the painful, rejection years.”
“Where's she going?” I ask, nodding toward the girl.
“She wanted her boyfriend frozen so she wouldn't have to break up with him,” G-Todd says. “He takes rejection badly and she thought he might hurt himself.”
I stop going to work. I tell Harris I'm sick and I'm pretty sure he believes me. But I don't care if he believes me. But I kind of hope he doesn't. To take my mind off of it, I binge watch 80's television shows that I've checked out from the library. I overeat foods containing fat, sugar, salt and chocolate. Theme songs stick in my head and I serenade my popcorn with them as it assumes a third dimension in the microwave. The simple, earnest lyrics are quaint, fortune cookies of perseverance: Makin' your way in the world today takes everything you got. It takes diff'rent strokes to move the world. We're gonna do it our way. Yes, our way. I curl into the safety of a time in which I was barely born.
Some days later, I awake on my couch, my chest dusted with scattershot popcorn kernels. My phone, which I find wedged between two cushions, says 3:23 a.m. On the television, Mallory Keaton paces the kitchen in her super-tight jeans, saying stupid stuff, being made fun of by Alex. It's unclear to me how many episodes I've consumed. I close my eyes again, but in my bloated delirium, I have the odd sensation that Mallory is trying to communicate with me. In between the dialogue, buried behind the laugh track, her small voice squeaks. In between the ditzy and the boy-crazy... in her spaced out brown eyes... when these people start dying by starvation or sleep deprivation or whatever it is that first kills a human sealed in wax, there will be an investigation. Manslaughter charges! The future scene unfolds: I'm standing in a courtroom next to my coworkers. We are wearing ill-fitting and itchy orange jumpsuits. A judge, dumbfounded by the arrogance and lack of foresight of delusional candle makers, hammers down his gavel with unprofessional anger.
A faint call to action throbs inside of me, activated by 72 hours of succinct resolutions. I open my eyes and dislodge myself from the couch. When I stand, the popcorn that missed my mouth snows to the rug.
In my room, I wrestle a pair of space heaters from behind a pile of shoes at the back of my closet. My plan is weak and unclear. I have no idea how much heat it takes to melt a human-sized candle. Before slipping out of the apartment, I peek into G-Todd's room and find his bed empty.
Eight minutes later, I'm in front of the warehouse. The building is only partially illuminated by street lamps which cast uninviting shadows onto the facade. The LED 'i's in the Waximus Maximus signage are designed to resemble candles, their dots silently flickering flames. Inside, the reek of sewage permeates the air. I switch on a dim light and see a dozen blocks of wax lined up against the west wall. The dull chorus of sedated zombies emanates through a series of snorkels. A trough has been constructed to funnel away waste that is dripping out of the individual blocks of wax. I move closer and examine the diffused forms of naked men and women sealed inside.
“What's up, Amy?” I turn and see Rick sitting in the darkness wearing only boxer shorts. It's clear, the way he's rubbing his eyes, that he was sleeping. He approaches, breaking into my personal space, going nose to nose with me. I back up but he keeps moving forward as if we're stuck together.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Do you have any lip balm?” Rick whispers. “My lips are incredibly chapped.”
I fish my Burt's Bees out of my pocket. He undoes the corn-gold cap and twists the gear at the base, then smooths the product over his lips. With a pucker and smack, he returns the lip balm. He takes my upper arms in his hands, a strong grip.
“Why are you fighting this?” he asks. My eyes shift from one of his eyes to the other then back, searching for something to lock on to.
“It's dangerous,” I say.
“Amy, look at me.”
“What? I am looking at you,” I say, lowering my eyes to my feet. With his index finger, Rick lifts my chin up until I face him.
“I'll make it very simple for you,” he says. “Always look into the eye that's looking at you.” I ease my stare straight into Rick's right eyeball. I'm not seeing a person anymore, but a black hole at the center of a sphere of white.
“I was born with my eye like this,” he says. “My mom wasn't too handy with a coat hanger.” I melt into his monocular gaze. I know I am being hypnotized and that something similar must have happened to Harris. I don't fight it. Maybe that's part of hypnosis. Your mind perceives the event, but your body relaxes into it, like prey in the jaws of a predator.
“Did you know that the definition of salvation is to be preserved from harm?” he says. “Don't you, Amy, want to be preserved? From harm?”
His lazy eye is drifting off toward a dark corner of the warehouse. Is someone there in the darkness with him? A cohort he is signaling to make their move on me now? He wants me in the box. He wants me in wax. If he succeeds, I will never be found. I will be stacked in among these others whose numbers will only continue to grow. Harris is probably already sealed in, withdrawing from nicotine and alcohol. And yet I don't turn around. I just stand there staring into Rick's eye while the mummified continue their lowing drone behind me.
“We're a candle company,” I say. “We make candles.”
He leans in and kisses me on the lips. I close my eyes and attribute the comfort of his embrace to the hypnosis and its seductive relief from responsibility. When he pulls away, the lip balm sticks us together for the briefest moment.
“Let's do this,” he whispers, dropping his boxers. Before I can consider how far I am willing to go, he turns away and climbs up onto the table.
Rick lowers himself into the box and reclines his slim brown body into position. He stares up at the ceiling with no visible shame over his manhood, beached on his left thigh. I approach the box and his funereal form.
His lazy eye lolls at me until, as if by some miracle of chance, his right eye joins it. For the first time, Rick is looking at me with both eyes. I feel his focus on the moment and the opportunity to get through to him. In this instant, I might convince him not to do this. Show him that avoidance solves nothing.
But instead, I place my hand on the ball valve. Rick doesn't return his gaze to the ceiling but keeps his eyes locked with mine. I twist the valve and the hot liquid pours forth.
As the wax rises to protect him, the room fills with the soothing scent of peppermint, a nice touch that either he had not thought of previously or was saving for himself. I inhale and my sinuses open gratefully. He closes his eyes and the translucent material washes over his face. It's my last chance to tell him our lives won't wait, that we are burning through them fast. Instead, I let him believe that he has been saved. I let him believe in his deferred potential, a slender wick waiting to be lit.
Jason Kniep is a writer, filmmaker, and housing rehabilitator living in Lawrence, Kansas, USA with his dog Bowie.