"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Silver wedding anniversaries were a big to-do in the small town where I grew up. Practically every marriage I knew made it that far. And even gossip about couples grabbing the gold centered on whether they’d live that long, not if they’d still be together when the time came. In short, the vocabulary of my Southern upbringing most definitely did not include the D-word.
Yet there I was standing in the kitchen one morning at 51, smack dab in the middle of a divorce, when the impending date of my 25th reared its big, ugly, gargantuan head, nearly boinging itself right off the calendar at me. Up until then, I hadn’t given any thought as to how I was going to celebrate. A few years before, I’d have keeled over on the spot if you’d told me I might be marking the milestone alone while my husband ate dinner with his fiancée.
Once reality sank in, there was no calming my anxiety. Even my regular meditation practice failed me. Or rather I failed at it. I was certain I’d be dragging myself around all day with a long face, vulnerable to spontaneous bouts of blubbering. So I immediately made a midday salon appointment. Wash that man right out of my hair, so to speak. It was a start, but only; in my mind a big day required something equally big to mark it.
My first idea — reenacting “Under the Tuscan Sun” — quickly fizzled out. Last-minute plane fare was expensive, and my kids were in school. As a single mom, I simply had too many things on my plate, not to mention guilt, to skip off to Italy.
Plan B included making a list of friends who had listened and returned my calls during the separation. I’d invite them all out for champagne and hors d’oeuvres. My treat. Days passed, however, and my invitations remained on the dining room table, untouched.
“You know, my 25th anniversary is almost here,” I said, pitching my party idea to my best friend Sadie one morning over breakfast.
“Just give me the date, hon,” she said.
“But what do you think about my plan?” I said, finally asking her point-blank the advice I had dreaded soliciting for days.
“I wouldn’t spend the money,” she said. “But if you think about it, there’s nothing to celebrate.” I was silent. “Whatever you decide, you know I’ll support you.”
I did know. Twice since my husband had left I’d gone into surgery alone. Twice Sadie had been there with a cup of Starbucks when I’d woken up.
Two seconds later I ditched the party idea. With only eight days to countdown, I was back to square one. I was petrified and certain I’d be spending my anniversary with the person I wanted to least be with: me.
Fantasies of how my husband and I might have once celebrated engulfed me the following week. It was a thoroughly useless gut-wrencher, I knew. As if continually punctuating my pain might somehow relieve it. I concluded Jake and I would probably have thrown a big party in the dream house we’d picked out 10 years before. We’d gone house hunting, and once I walked in and saw all that sunlight pouring in through the kitchen door, I knew the place was ours. Even Jake had been convinced. More than 25 years ago, we’d been as equally convinced about each other.
Jake had grown up in New York; I moved north from Maryland after law school to accept a job in the same company where Jake worked. The day we met he kept me standing in heels for nearly an hour while peppering me with questions before he finally offered me a seat.
“Let me tell you about myself,” he said. I hadn’t asked and wasn’t interested, big brown dreamy eyes or not. Only 25, I had just landed my first real job in New York City. The last thing on my mind was falling in love.
“I bet you didn’t know I was an actor, did you?” he said, opening his desk drawer and handing me his head shot, which gave me all his stats. I wondered how often he’d rehearsed that role.
“Really,” I replied, my tone flat, not wanting to encourage him one bit. Not that it mattered. He liked to talk and kept at it for another two hours.
“Jerk,” I said under my breath, finally freeing myself with pleas of work to do. But Jake never let up. Day by day he drew me in with some offhand comment that was just so funny I couldn’t help but laugh and toss something in return. He said he’d never met a girl who could give back as good as he gave, and soon I was blushing and warming to all his stories. Before long, I was hopelessly smitten.
Nine months later we were sealed in holy wedlock by my grandfather, a Southern Baptist minister whom my Jewish-born husband nonetheless approved of, at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Manhattan. Twenty years we lived in Brooklyn, enduring what at times seemed like more than our fair share of troubles, troubles to me nonetheless overshadowed by the two lives we brought into the world.
Within weeks of the seven-year itch, we conceived our first daughter. Equally auspicious, a few months before unlucky 13, we brought home healthy daughter number two. In between, we threw a grand party to celebrate our 10th anniversary and greeted guests all decked out in nuptial gear. Jake was handsome in his black tuxedo, and I slipped easily into my wedding gown. And damned if we didn’t look happily ever after, I thought, flipping through the photo album, never once doubting in all those years that, just like my mom and dad, Jake and I, too, would one day stand side by side, cutting our anniversary cake.
And then one day my 12-year-old daughter found me in the kitchen one morning, broken.
“Why are you crying, Mom?” she asked, rubbing my back.
“Your dad’s leaving, sweetheart,” I reminded her.
“I know, but Daddy still loves you.”
“I’m not so sure,” I’d said.
“Of course he does,” she assured me. “He gave you those emerald earrings you wanted for your anniversary.”
Less than six months before, Jake and I had celebrated our 20th anniversary. He’d loaded the evening with surprises, including a small box containing the emerald earrings I’d seen in a shop the winter before.
What my daughter didn’t know, however, was that three months later her father had a girlfriend. That shortly after he started a new job, he’d begun having an affair with a woman in his office who had a 9-year-old son and two previous marriages behind her.
Still, it was my daughter’s words I hung on to, wanting to believe my little girl was somehow more capable of discerning the truth than I was. Weeks later, though, her father was gone. And five years came and went. And there I was, an A-1 planner without a plan, facing my silver wedding anniversary alone. A woman who had worked her way through law school, traveled the world and made it all the way to New York City, yet still longing for the one thing the women in her small, rural hometown had accomplished that she somehow hadn’t — an abiding marriage.
As I sat home, wallowing, I lifted from the shelf the white wedding album that I’d been avoiding since the day Jake left. My eyes fell on the fresh-faced blonde and her suitor standing at the altar, their future an open slate.
A year and a half before, I’d gone to a lecture one Saturday afternoon and realized I was within a few blocks of that very church. I figured there was no better time to venture a peek, fortified as I was from a two-hour Buddhist lecture, and so I strolled there, only to find the doors bolted. Disappointed, I walked away, avoiding the church from then on, even though the thought of going back lingered.
Suddenly the time seemed right to brave those wooden doors again. So a few days later, when my anniversary arrived, I hopped on the subway.
“Take as long as you like,” the church manager said, leading me inside and then excusing himself. In all honesty I wasn’t exactly sure why I’d gone or what I was going to do. As I looked around, stroking the red-velvet-covered pews, a few details came rushing back — the double aisles, one on either side, the rich wood. The rest was decidedly more majestic than I remembered — eight stained-glass windows, a cathedral ceiling, and a reredos adorned with intricate wood and gold filigree. The scale of my presence in the space where my husband and I had pledged our faithfulness exactly 25 years before was humbling.
Surprised to find myself wanting to recollect more, I strode to the anteroom on the left-hand side of the church where I’d once waited nervously with my attendants on a hot Saturday afternoon. Our flower girl had thrown a fit in that very spot, advising her mother she most assuredly was not walking down that aisle. I laughed, realizing that the little girl who stuck to her guns was all grown up and most surely an executive in charge of a vast number of underlings.
And then I walked through the archway, just as I’d once done, pretending to link arms with my dad, gone 20 years from a heart attack, my head held high, tears flowing, while I marched down the aisle.
It’s OK, I can do this, I said to myself as I reached the front pew and sat down. Brian, the church manager, appeared with a cup of water and left as quietly as he’d entered. Susan Sparks, the pastor, arrived next. I’d read about her online — a woman preacher and a stand-up comic. This was definitely not my mother’s Baptist church.
“Brian told me why you’re here,” she said. “What a brave thing to do. Perhaps you’ll even be able to reclaim this place in a different way.” I hadn’t expected to meet her but half thought she’d say something humorous to lighten the mood a bit. But she was somber, kind. And that’s when I realized that flying off to Europe or partying with my girlfriends would have been all wrong. This was a time for being alone and making peace with my loss. Susan left as quickly and quietly as Brian had done, and I resumed my meditation, breathing in bright white light and blowing all the dark smoky anger out.
As I ran my hands over the plush pews, my thoughts all at once became clear, and I took out paper and pen and started writing my husband’s girlfriend a note. “I imagine it will be as awkward for you to read as it is for me to write,” I began. A month before, she’d been diagnosed with cancer. And while I was still light years from forgiveness, what she and I had in common unexpectedly trumped the enormous gulf between us: We were both mothers. Surprised, I found myself wishing her a complete recovery, though in truth I hadn’t always felt that way.
“I hope your son is doing OK,” I added. “My girls say he’s a nice kid.”
When I finished the note, it was time to go. I’d reenacted my entrance on the left; it was time for my exit on the right. I turned my back to the altar and started as the words “come on Jake” flew from my lips. But once I gathered my wits, I stopped dead mid-aisle, turned round again, and said out loud: “On second thought, I’m going to do this part on my own.” And then I marched down the aisle and out the church, wondering who could possibly be channeling through me, feeling as light as the June air that greeted me outdoors.
Beverly Willett is a freelance writer and lawyer. Her articles have appeared in many national newspapers and magazines. She is the Co-Chair of the Coalition for Divorce Reform and is represented by the Bent Agency. Visit her at beverlywillett.com.More Beverly Willett.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)