One of the hazards of working in a candle shop when you’re a teenage boy is that you can accidentally burn your face off.
I say this not only because teenage boys love all things sharp, flammable and explosive, but because it happened to me.
My parents owned a chain of Wicks ‘n Sticks stores when I was in high school. It was a short chain — just two small stores in shopping malls on opposite ends of town — but I believe calling it a chain makes me sound like I come from old money, so I’m sticking with it.
In reality, I worked for my parents, who paid me minimum wage to run the store while they took months-long luxury cruises to Italy and Iceland.*
Wicks ‘n Sticks sold expensive, decorative candles. Many of them were carved to look like birds, because there’s nothing more beautiful to an American than a flaming eagle. It also sold votives to people who apparently wanted their homes to smell like a mixture of fake cinnamon apples and the oily effluent of the Exxon Valdez. I hated that smell, and to this day my stomach heaves when I walk past a candle shop.
At least my duties at the candle shop were simple: Sell product, stock the shelves, and clean wax off countertops and glass, often with kerosene-soaked paper towels. In hindsight, the kerosene seems like a bad idea.
I was cleaning the counter and lighting candles one night when I absentmindedly threw a smoldering match into the trash can, which instantly erupted into a five-foot-high pillar of flame. My first thought was, “You’d better put out that fire before the mall burns to the ground and your angry parents have to rush home from Greece to post your bail.”
Being young, my solution was to blow the fire out. So I took a deep breath, leaned over, and blew on the trash can with all my might.
I’ve since learned that, technically, fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion.
What I learned then was that when you blow on a fire, you get more fire, and a lot of it. The flames leapt toward my face quicker than I could flinch, burning off a lot of my hair and all of my eyebrows, eyelashes and the chin fuzz I’d been hoping to turn into a heard. I batted wildly at the ascending cloud of smoke and ash, backing away from the towering inferno faster than a flaming eagle diving into a lake for relief.
Fortunately, I was able to smother the fire with a cloth towel, saving the mall, the candle shop, my family’s considerable fortune, and about 40 percent of my dignity.
I also learned a valuable lesson: Never put a teenage boy in charge of anything involving fire.
*Child abandonment added for dramatic purposes.