Say you’re invited to a dinner party at the home of someone you don’t know very well. Perhaps they’re the chairman of your department at a college in rural, upstate New York, one of those private, liberal arts schools with twelve hundred students and six hundred faculty.
And suppose, for a moment, that it has been snowing for three days, and that it’s snowing still as you drive to the dinner party. The house is far from town, on a country road. It’s a damn estate, you think, when you finally see it: blazing with red and green Christmas lights, and perched high up on a cliff, like a fort, or a medieval castle, or, because of the abundance of red and green lights, a confused, landlocked lighthouse.
And what if, as you glimpse the chairman’s house on this snow-covered acreage far from town, you have the thought that the chairman must be a WW2 veteran to own such a fine house, because he could never afford it now, on the salary new college professors earn, about thirty thousand dollars a year. He must have received an interest-free mortgage, and a free college education under the GI Bill, and, later, a highly paid, tenured, teaching position with a 2/2 course load. He must have left graduate school with no debt, with a PhD in British Literature and no debt, no debt at all. Certainly not the debt that you have: forty thousand dollars for your BA, twenty thousand dollars for your MA, and seventy thousand dollars for your PhD—debt that you’ll be paying off until the day you die. And maybe you think of how lucky the chairman and his family in their fine fort of a house must be.
Well, those days are gone for good, you think, as you turn onto the black paved road that leads to the fort, or the lighthouse, or the country estate, or whatever the hell it is. The road is so clear of snow you think it must be heated.
As you drive up to the house, you continue to marvel at the snow-free road. At the same time, you comb your unruly hair, first with your fingers and then with a plastic straw bent in half. Or maybe you happen to glance at your shoe, the one lightly resting upon the gas pedal. A shoe you diligently polished before you left your apartment, but now, out here on the heated road, a shoe still scuffed and faded. But you tell yourself not to worry about it, you’ll buy new clothes, a new pair of shoes, with your next paycheck, let the bills wait, they’ve waited before, and you’re relieved at the thought of a steady paycheck, something you can count on, in a way that you haven’t been able to count on anything for the past five years.
And you think, just maybe, this is the beginning of the good part of your life. The part everyone says will come if you hold on long enough through the bad part. Because the bad part, as everyone says, has to end one day. As you drive to the dinner party you believe that maybe it’s true, maybe it has ended, and maybe you even feel a little grateful to the chairman for hiring you, too, even though the salary is only thirty thousand dollars a year, and you have a 5/5 course load, because, with one collective nod of their hoary heads, they moved you out of the unemployment parking lot and onto the road to future financial security.
And now you want to get there as soon as possible. You want to be there. You want to be the person who arrives at a faculty dinner party on an estate far from town. You can’t wait to be accepted into the warm group of friends who have known one another for twenty or thirty years in this small, rural town that’s a four-hour drive from the closest city, Ottawa, where they go for culture, they say, and to shop, they say, and to break the claustrophobic monotony of the impossibly long, unbearably frigid winter.
And then, finally, you’re there.
You don’t really have to go to the bathroom. You go because you want to look in the mirror. You go because you were in an agitated state when you left your apartment, driven by your fear of being late, because arriving late is a sign of disrespect, a sign of someone who has had a bad time for five years and now wants that bad time to end. And you don’t have to wash your hands because it is snowing, and you are wearing gloves, and, inside the gloves, your hands are clean. You just want to look in the mirror. You just want to make sure that your mascara isn’t smeared across your face from squinting into the dark.
Imagine, for a moment, that the candles inside the hall closet, a closet that you mistake, at first, for the bathroom, are white. A creamy shade of white that immediately brings to mind the vanilla-scented, votive candles you buy at Pier One because they’re so cheap you can afford them. The hall closet candles are white, ten inches long, and shaped like penises.
And maybe you wonder, now, if the penises are scented. You decide they’re not, because scented candles fill a room with fragrance, and no fragrance issued forth when you opened the closet door. You don’t know why, but, for some reason, you think scented, penis-shaped candles would be worse.
There is no attempt to hide them inside the closet. Anyone who opens the door to look for a towel, or a bar of soap, would encounter them there, lined up on the top shelf. All of the penises have wicks, too. At the top, where candle wicks should be. Long, white wicks. Untrimmed. A little too long, so you know the candles came by mail order and not from a store, because you worked at a candle store in college, and you always trimmed the wicks before you put the candles on the shelves.
And perhaps you decide to count the candles, too. Seven penises the color of cream. Seven. Why seven? Are they for an altar or a shrine? Are they holiday grab bag leftovers, part of a prank by a colleague in another department? Which department, would you guess? Theatre Arts? Religion? Psychology?
But, if they are a grab bag gift, then why are they not displayed on the mantle above the fireplace where everyone at a faculty dinner party could have a chuckle over them, the way they chuckle over someone they call “weird Professor Howard,” and his unusual lab equipment in the science building.
And now you think that you ought to go into the bathroom, run the tap water, and flush the toilet. Maybe you’ve been gone a long time now, standing in the hallway with your hand on the doorknob, staring into the darkness of a penis-packed closet. You’re not ready to return to the dinner party just yet, not until you check your reflection in the bathroom mirror to make sure that the surprised, perplexed, and, possibly, even frightened, look on your face is gone.
So you run cold water into the bathroom sink, and you wonder what else is in the hall closet. You want to look one more time before you return to the party. Maybe faculty at small, isolated, liberal arts colleges have strange rituals that they conduct in their small, isolated towns.
Or maybe they’re making porno videos. You’ve read about that. You’ve watched those cable TV news channels that feature savage murderers and brutal child molesters and always begin with the words, “It’s a small, rural town, peaceful, where nobody expects anything like this to happen.” And maybe you have listened to so many brutal, savage stories that when you hear those words you begin to shout: “But that is exactly where these things happen. In small towns. And you should know, because you’ve had twenty such stories this year. And it’s only February.”
You flush the toilet for the third time, and maybe now you begin to think that everything is a big mistake. Everything is a big mistake, and maybe you ought to go out there to the dinner party and announce that you have a fatal illness, cancer or lupus. The chairman would understand lupus, because when you entered the house you noticed several first editions of Flannery O’Connor’s books on a shelf just inside the door. Or maybe you think you ought to go out there and say that you’re sorry, but you cannot take advantage of such nice people, such warm, nice people, anymore, and you’re leaving, tonight, you’re going back to Massachusetts, yes, back to Boston, where you’ll get your old apartment back if your landlord hasn’t rented it yet, yes, and maybe Matthew, too, maybe get Matthew back, too, if Matthew hasn’t left Boston yet, even though Matthew said that four hundred miles wasn’t far enough, and, therefore, he was moving as well, far away, to Los Angeles, where he had no memories of you, and, therefore, he would be free to make new memories with some other woman.
You could go out to the dinner party, and say that Matthew had a little trouble when he came back from Afghanistan, yes, he had a little bit of trouble, but it didn’t matter, no, because Matthew is Matthew, and, one day soon, he will be all right again, right as rain, as he used to say, good as gold, A-Okay, the way he was before he went over there, despite the fact that his medical insurance isn’t as good as the chairman’s or any of the other GI’s after the second world war, no, only VA hospital insurance, and everyone knows that VA hospitals hire the worst doctors, and that the U.S. government is committed to a policy, no, committed to a line of bullshit that says a combat veteran really doesn’t really need anything at all, no help of any kind, he just needs a little time to readjust to civilian life, truly, he needs no help at all, even though he takes a knife one day and holds it against his throat and oh so slowly begins to slice into the skin until a red line appears where you love to lay your head at night, and you could just go out there to the dinner party, and say that you must leave tonight, right now, and drive to Boston, but you would never get another job in academia if you walk out on your teaching contract during the semester, because the chairman won’t be able to find anyone who would to move to an arctic wasteland in the middle of nowhere to teach five courses at fifteen thousand dollars a semester at the very last minute, which is how you imagine the minute you’re in.
“Academia is a very small world,” your thesis advisor told you before you left graduate school. “Remember that.”
In other words, graduate school is over, and this is it.
So maybe you turn on the cold water, and you let it run for a few minutes, and you put your hands under the water, and you wet your hair down flat against your head. And, perhaps, you reassuringly remind yourself that you’re in the bathroom to wash up, a normal thing to do at a party, before you eat, when you’ve only just arrived, after traveling a great distance on an unfamiliar road in the cold and the dark of an interminable winter. You’ll just wash up, and then get the hell out of there, quick, quick, quick, get back to the party where you truly long to be. You think you saw chocolate cake on the buffet table in the kitchen. Chocolate cake. Your favorite. People who serve chocolate cake at a faculty dinner party can’t be too odd, can they? You’ll just have a piece of chocolate cake, and then you’ll be right with the world again. Right as rain, good as gold, A-Okay.
But you have to pass the hall closet to get back to the party. And now, perhaps, you wonder whether someone might be standing outside the bathroom door. But when you open the door no one is there. You realize that in a house like a fort, or a medieval castle, or a landlocked lighthouse with a confusion of port and starboard lights, there are probably two bathrooms, at least two, possibly more, four or five or even six bathrooms, so that the privileged inhabitants will never have to do anything as banal as wait for a toilet.
You’ve been away from the party a long time now, you realize, longer than anyone should be away who is merely using the bathroom to freshen up after a short drive down a long road, or a long drive down a short road, which is precisely the purpose of a bathroom at a party. Now you will have to tell them that you’re sick to explain the long time you’ve spent inside the bathroom. Maybe they’re out there at the dinner party, yes, those smug, faculty friends, secure in their debt-free lives, owners of mortgage-free houses, possessors of life-long tenure, secure in a way that you’ll never be, and Matthew, and, surely, they are thinking that you must have an eating disorder, either that, or you’re taking drugs. Their voices have become quieter, you think. Less animated. Silent, almost.
You have to go out there. But you have to look inside the closet, too. One last time. Just to make sure you haven’t imagined everything.
The penises are still there. They stand neatly in a row, something you didn’t notice the first time you looked. They are lined up on the shelf like toy soldiers, guarding several big, red boxes stacked behind them. Yes, it’s true. You see it all quite clearly now. That’s why the penises are there. They are guarding the big, red boxes.
You don’t have time to look inside the boxes. Maybe you take out your phone and check the clock. Maybe you’ve been gone forty-five minutes, far too long for any reason you can think of, any reason you can make up, any reason that would make any sense at all.
The conversation among the group of old friends has stopped, and an eerie silence hangs over the house. You grab two penises from the shelf, one in each hand. Holding them out at arm’s length in front of you, one a sword, and the other a shield, you go in.
“Penis Candles” by D. Daniel Shea and the artwork titled Penis Candles by Julia Jin appeared in Issue 41 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
D. Daniel Shea is a writer.
Julia Jin is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley (class of 2020). Outside of her day job, she is a freelance illustrator. As a former member of the BFR team, she was excited to work on a piece for one of the amazing stories published for this year.