A Shoebox for All the Light in the World

An image of two candles, their flames creating an orangish light against an otherwise dark background.

A couple days ago, on May 24th, a group text goes out to me and all my friends. It says, “Bring your sick candles to The Parking Lot, Sam will bring shoeboxes.”

That’s all it says. Nobody knows who initiated the chain. An unrecognizable number, which is a little weird, because no one new has entered our friend group in years. And Sam’s this sneaker head we all thought was dead, which is a lot of weird. But we all agree to meet up anyway, at this barbed wire shopping plaza where our favorite Chinese restaurant used to be. Affectionately known as “The Parking Lot.”

In our armpit corner of the world, it always feels like we’re halfway to Halloween. Not completely hopeless that we fully commit to a lifetime of ghostliness but depressed enough that we hold funerals for literally anything that is vanishing. Like all our candles that won’t light anymore. They’ve been busy though. More than a year indoors, we’ve been casting spells for the greater good. The suspicious death of a politician or two or teaching ourselves necromancy via Zoom. So we could turn water back into icebergs. We wanted no more teardrops. But the melting didn’t stop and the wrong people died.

And look, I’m not not a realist. I know that there are probably simpler reasons for the unfortunate uselessness of our candles. Like maybe the wicks are too short to burn or maybe they’re buried in too much wax. But the reasons don’t matter. What’s important are the lessons we take from the obstacles we encounter. How we must remember that light is never all the way gone. Like how sometimes a poem is a funeral that keeps on talking long after the dirt is done. How we must remember that there is an afterlife for every person, place and thing. And I guess with summer fast approaching, we all need the catharsis. A reminder of the light, of how strong we fought these last few months.

Anyway, when I arrive, “The Parking Lot” smells like last election’s propaganda. There are crab chunks in the potholes. Everybody’s already there and we try to make small talk, but it comes out as a jumbled mess.

“Any side effects?”

“Just the usual sadness.“

“Did your vaccination site have a guestbook? Mine did. I read it from front to back.”

“All my favorite books have been ruined by TV. At least I can laugh about it now.”

“What the fuck is up with John Mulaney? Like was he replaced by a body snatcher who doesn’t believe in marriage? I thought he adored his wife. I guess love doesn’t exist anymore.”

“No, it does. Because I’m in love with David. David from FEMA. Remember? The one who really looked over my doctor’s note.”

“How’s your office chair though? Does it give good lumbar support?”

“Federal assistance dried up pretty quickly. How long you think the unemployment line has to get before it swallows itself like ouroboros?”

“What happens after that?”


Eventually, Sam starts to mumble and we all hush up. Like magic. Because our eyelashes transform into tea leaves and we all start scrambling around, placing our candles in the shoeboxes, which have been neatly arranged like some kind of ritual. Then we just stare at them as Sam mumbles faster and faster. I guess the hope is that maybe our candles regain muscle memory and run headfirst into darkness again. Maybe it works and there’s no more misfortune. Maybe it won’t work. The whole experience is crazy emotional. Confusing, you know? Like when a sunbeam bites into you but you don’t think about the pain or notice the blood, because the light is so beautiful.


An image of Justin Karcher, a person with short dark hair and a beard. He is looking at his phone, which has been used to take a picture in a mirror.

Justin Karcher (Twitter: @justin_karcher, Instagram: the.man.about.town) is a Best of the Net- and Pushcart-nominated poet and playwright born and raised in Buffalo, NY. He is the author of several books, including Tailgating at the Gates of Hell (Ghost City Press, 2015). He is also the editor of Ghost City Review.