From Chapter 1: Leaving Like a Lady
Summer had been warmer than usual this year, but the heat that throbbed in the East Bay was already coaxing pale fingers of fog into the city. Anna could feel this on her skin, the chilly caress she had come to think of as "candle weather." She had not owned a fireplace since her landlady days on Russian Hill, but to her mind the proper application of candlelight carried all the primal comfort of a campfire.
She grabbed the purple plastic firelighter on the sideboard in the parlor. Her legs, however, weren't cooperating, so she steadied herself for a moment, slouching ludicrously on one hip, like Joan Crawford in 1940s gun moll mode. This thing in her wobbly old hand was disturbingly gunlike, complete with a trigger and a barrel.
Mustn't think of it as a gun. Think of it as a wand.
She aimed the lighter at the top of a candle, a stately pillar whose rim had grown satisfyingly wavy with use, though she did not recall having seen it before. She wondered, optimistically, if her companion Jake had been burning it in his room.
"Stop!" Jake sprang from the sofa, having just noticed her above the top of his magic slate. "Not that one!" The alarm in his voice suggested someone arriving at a gas chamber with a last-minute stay of execution from the governor.
Anna dropped her firearm, surrendering on the spot. "Sorry, dear. Saving it for a special friend?" This was naughty of her, since Jake was easily embarrassed, but she liked the notion that he might have found someone worthy of candlelight.
"It's for you," he said placidly, shaming her with his teddy-bear dignity. "Got it at Pottery Barn this morning."
"Ah. Very thoughtful." She was still confounded by that melted rim.
"I can get some more, if you like it."
"I do . . . yes." She hoped this sounded sincere; there was not much you could say, really, about a plain white candle. "And why am I not allowed to light it?"
He took the pillar in his hands, fidgeting with something on the bottom, causing it to glow, candle-like, from within. "Wa-lah!" he crowed.
"Oh my," she said, unable to manage anything else. Was there nothing on earth this child could not replace with inscrutable electronics?
"You don't have to light it," he said. "And you don't have to blow it out."
Anna widened her eyes at him comically. "And you don't have to burn down the house."
"That too, yeah." Jake smiled without losing his aura of parental resolve — an achievement, really, from someone almost sixty years her junior. How could she blame him for fretting about this? One afternoon last winter, after the first cold snap, he had come home from the gym to find her asleep in her chair, the remains of an amethyst candle dripping off the end table like a Dalí clock. She had not heard the end of it.
"Here's the cool part," he added brightly, soldiering on. "It's on a timer! You can make it turn on and off whenever you want. Amazeballs — right?"
She had wearied of this "amazeballs" business, but she let it pass; she was touched by the effort he'd put into this campaign. She regarded him benignly until she caught his gaze. "So this is the end of candlelight?"
He hesitated. "Well . . . if you wanna put it that way."
"How would you have me put it?"
"Jeez, Anna — the End of Candlelight? You just can't light stuff when I'm not around, that's all."
"I understand," she said calmly, because she did; some of her old playthings now required adult supervision. Her days were full of such small surrenders — why make a fuss over them? You could see them as loss, or you could see them as simplification. Her daughter Mona would have called this an act of faith, this Zen letting-go of familiar pleasures. Anna chose to think of it as leaving like a lady.
"I have bade farewell to flame," she declared, lifting her hand in a fluttery theatrical wave that she hoped would disguise any actual melancholy on her part. "And I am so much lighter for the journey."
He sighed with relief. "Thank you, but you have not . . . 'bade farewell to flame,' or whatever. There's gonna be plenty of flame in your life. Trust me."
This sounded so strangely purposeful that she was taken aback. "What on earth does that mean?"
"Nothing." Jake was blushing beneath his stubble, obviously mortified at having said more than he'd intended. He was helplessly chameleonic, this boy, forever blending in with his emotions. "It doesn't mean anything," he said.
"I'm not expecting a funeral pyre," she said.
He scowled at her. "That's not funny."
"Well, what does 'plenty of flame' mean?"
"It's just — you know, a figure of speech."
She knew Jake to be many things, but metaphorical was not among them.
From The Days of Anna Madrigal, by Armistead Maupin. Copyright 2014 by Armistead Maupin. Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins.