By Clay Coleman
VANDALIA—Have you noticed that scented candles are at a premium nowadays? During times of peace, high stock markets, or just being allowed to walk outside, go to any store, and scented candles are all over the place. During a pandemic—I counted six. Tucked away in a corner with scents like apple, orange, and coconut, I threw the abandoned palm-size bottles in my cart, looked both ways, and hauled ass.
Part 1: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Two days before deadline is a special time in the journalism community. If you’re a particularly good writer, or a dedicated reporter with years of experience covering a beat, the party continues. But if you’re like me, half a year in and struggling to find your style, two days before deadline is the day after the party when you better be sitting in front of a computer, writing. Under normal circumstances, the process is kind of easy—you collect up your stories—then start writing your outlines. But have the power go out during a pandemic, and it becomes a different story entirely.
I can hear her in the dark opening drawers, as I walk over to the window. She tells me a tree had taken out some utility poles earlier in the day, shutting down power for most of the city. I tell her they didn’t fix it, as I stare at the blue lights flashing from the utility truck racing down the street. I had stories to write, or at least decide what will make the cut for the next issue, and tonight was not the night to go without power. I hear glass clinking as she spreads out the candles on the kitchen table—the same ones that I bought earlier. Lighting them, she places the candles throughout the house, as I take two over to my laptop and start to write.
The types of stories have been changing since the coronavirus first came to our shores. Though we can never remind the public enough about hand-washing and social distancing, the virus has just about canceled every event worth writing about. Schools have closed, sports have gone away, city council meetings are now online, almost everything a small-town newspaper relies upon to generate interest has been suspended while we wait. One would think with so little news happening, the stories that are out there would be easier to capture. Well, I was figuring all that out when I noticed the laptop screen starting to get blurry.
I have been suffering from a headache ever since the power went out earlier. Chalking that up to late-night writing, I continue to pound away at the keyboard until I notice a very distinct smell in the room. Smelling like a bear putting on suntan lotion in a spring meadow, I stare past my computer and see smoke from the coconut candle, mixing with smoke from the blossom candle. Fumbling my way into the kitchen, I look down and see her passed out from the fumes of an apple orchard that’s on fire. The only plant that doesn’t seem to be on fire in this orchard is the cactus rose, which I can faintly detect as I scoop her up and throw open a window. After reviving her, we douse the candles and decide to call it a night.
The next morning, I call City Administrator Darren Berry and get the scoop. It seems a tree had fallen earlier in the day and knocked down two utility poles. After the city fixed the damage, they reengaged the breaker, and sparks started shooting out of the turbine. Berry told me that the city had to borrow a portable turbine from Central Electric out of Jefferson City. When asked how long before the damage would be fixed and everything goes back to normal, Berry gave a verbal shrug and said I better get more candles just in case.