by Denise Tolan

It was an evening routine. Carmen walked into Saint Dominic’s, dipped her fingers into Holy Water, genuflected in front of the crucifix and walked across the large church to the chapel tucked away in the corner of the building. The chapel was so small she didn’t have to look twice to see if it was empty. It was usually empty, unless the man who sat by the row of votive candles had somehow arrived first. Gus, the parish handyman occasionally lingered in the shadows. He might or might not stay for the six o’clock mass, but Carmen never thought to look for him.

As soon as Carmen settled herself into the pew, Gus quietly picked up his dry mop and made his way toward the maintenance closet at the back of the chapel. She looked up and gave him a faint smile. He thought it might be a smile. It could be that she was moving her mouth slowly while praying and he just caught her lips on an upturn. It was hard to know for sure.

In the safe darkness of the closet, Gus placed the mop against the wall, then turned to study the back of Carmen’s head. She wore a ponytail today, not his favorite hairstyle for her, but he did like the new dress. He was pretty sure it was new. The dress was like a man’s shirt, but long enough to cover her knees. There was some material in the same light blue color as the dress acting like a belt, loosely touching her waist. She was thin and when she reached over to pick up a missalette, he saw the outline of her bra.

He turned back toward the closet, embarrassed at having seen something she hadn’t intended him to see. A hot feeling of shame pounded either side of his face. For an instant he felt like a boxer might when a manager slapped his cheeks in the middle of a match. “Gustavo,” he could hear his mother say. “You think these things in church?”

Gus could have left work at five, but for many months he’d found himself lingering, waiting for Carmen to arrive. What he knew about her now didn’t amount to much more than he’d known a year ago. He knew her name because when he’d cleaned the church after her mother’s funeral he snuck a peek at the obituary. Her mother, Lourdes, had been seventy-one when she died, so he figured Carmen to be in her early forties. The obituary provided very little additional information. Survived by a daughter, Carmen. There were no proceeded bys or other survivors mentioned at all. A few older women from St. Dominic’s had attended the service, but no one sat next to Carmen with an arm around her shoulder—not a brother or a sister or even a cousin.

Throughout the funeral he noticed how Carmen sat straight-backed. Not a tear. All her sorrow seemed concentrated in her hands. He’d never seen anyone wring their hands before. Over and under over and under until she stopped to shake Father Ted’s hand after the service, then examined her own hands, as if wondering what possessed them.

Gus quietly locked the closet door. Months ago he’d put the key to the closet on a separate ring so he wouldn’t make noise whenever he took out his large key ring to lock the door. He had two key chains to keep track of now, which was a little bit of an inconvenience, but he’d seen Carmen flinch when he first reached into his pocket for the big key ring then watched as her hands began the over and under, over and under. Gus hated being the cause of her distress.

One evening before the six o’clock mass, Father Ted and Gus stood together near the maintenance closet. The priest nodded toward Carmen and whispered, “I see this a lot. People who come back to us—the church—after a loss. And we are always here for our sheep, Gus. Always here to comfort them in their sorrow.”

Gus wanted to ask what happened when people felt better. Did they leave? Would she leave? He also wanted to ask Father why people didn’t want comfort before a loss, to prepare them for the pain. But he felt his mother, gone since he was thirty-three, look at him with eyes so dark he couldn’t distinguish her pupils and say, “Gustavo, the Father is too busy to answer your childish questions.” So he kept silent.

Around five-forty he ran out of things to busy himself with, so he turned to look at Carmen one more time before he left. If he stayed for mass too often, Father Ted might put two and two together and he needed this job. Carmen’s head was bowed. He had no idea what she was praying for. He knew his own mother would have liked this plain woman much more than the woman he had been married to. The woman he had married was big—fat and cushy and loud. She wore lipstick so red her mouth looked gigantic and sore, like a picture of a surgery in progress.

Her name was Ana. After a night of drinking, she would stumble to their bed and pull Gus on top of her. He loved feeling lost in her folds, not knowing exactly what he was touching, but knowing it was a part of her. When he woke in the mornings, the lipstick marks on his neck and face, and sometimes on his stomach, looked like raw, raised whelps.

Ana had a lot of complaints about Gus. He drank more nights than he should and this sometimes prevented him from making it to his job. Gus never had problems finding new jobs, but he was an apartment complex maintenance man with their home tied to his salary, so whenever he was fired he and Ana had to move. They moved a lot. Ana had a steady job as a bookkeeper and even though Gus made more money than her, he could tell she felt superior to him because she didn’t wear a uniform.

They spent time on weekends drinking and eating with family and friends. Sometimes, when Ana drank just enough to be loose but not yet enough to be angry, she would make fun of Gus in front of all their people. “Do you remember that little character who swept off the spotlight at the end of the Carol Burnett show?” Ana said once as they sat outside in her cousin’s backyard. “He had a mustache that was long and stringy and he wore a little janitor’s uniform. He looked like Gus, huh? You remember?” Everyone laughed, but Gus saw his mother’s face harden fast, like soft clay left on a sunny kitchen windowsill.

Gus felt that Ana was justified in her complaints about him. He didn’t mind the jokes or the times when Ana would walk by him, slow down, step on his toe with her high heel, then turn back to look at him like, “Say something. Try it.” What he minded were how the years went by without children and no one could figure out why. One of the nephews brought Holy Water back from Lourdes and they sprinkled it on Ana’s belly. Nothing. The aunts performed their rituals with eggs and string. Nothing. Thousands of candles were lit on behalf of Ana and hundreds of novenas to Our Lady of Guadalupe were offered and still, nothing. In hindsight Gus thought they should have seen a doctor, but all he had now was hindsight about hindsight.

The night Ana found him in their driveway with the neighbor lady’s head in his lap was the last time he saw Ana in the dark. Ana pulled Gus out of the car, slapping and scratching him so that when he woke in the morning he saw the same whelps he usually saw on the mornings after, only this time, they stung.

“Gustavo,” he remembered his mother saying when it was just the two of them living in an apartment together. “It had to be you. I saw Mrs. Fuentes in the Piggly Wiggly and Ana has three children already. She left you six years ago, no?”

Gus felt an arm go around his shoulder. “Are you staying for mass today?”

“Yes Father,” Gus said. Suddenly, he needed comfort.

* * *

Carmen bowed her head and tried to pray. Sometimes when she squeezed her eyes tightly, she’d picture a purple dress she’d worn when she still cared about how clothes looked on her. Ever since her mother died she couldn’t seem to find a reason to add color to herself. She wasn’t completely sure why she was so depressed. Her mother never complained about her life and had even been rather spiritual about her illness and approaching death. But when Carmen closed her eyes to pray, all the sorrow her mother lived through repeated itself in her memory, like the prayers on a rosary bead. Three sons killed in a fire. A husband who left when he found his wife was pregnant with Carmen. “I can’t say goodbye to another child,” he’d cried. Then he had six more children with a woman down the street. All sons. They went to school with Carmen.

Her mother never remarried. She took a vow of lovelessness after her husband left. She never hugged Carmen or kissed her goodnight, but she fed her well and dressed her neatly and people always said, “Lourdes, your Carmen is a fine young girl.” Carmen heard her mother say thank you, but she felt like an object her mother had gotten as a good bargain, not something she’d have ever purchased at full price.

When her mother died, it was without resolution. Just once, Carmen thought, spending every night, every morning at her sick mother’s bedside, she’d like to have seen a sign that she was more than the charred remains of her mother’s happiness.

After her mother’s funeral, Carmen began coming to the chapel every evening after work to light a candle for her mother’s soul, then stayed for the short six o’clock mass. She liked the ritual, but in truth, if not for the man by the candles, she might have stopped coming after a month or two.

The first time Carmen came to the chapel, she noticed the man right away. He was sitting in the pew closest to the row of votive candles. She didn’t look at him directly because he was a man and because he was large. After a few weeks, she noticed that even if he was in the chapel first, he never looked up when the door opened, not even the time her purse brushed his back as she walked behind him. She snuck a few looks at his face while she extinguished the long wooden match in the sand at the bottom of the candle rack.

It was hard to tell if he was white or not. He had some color to him, but it was dark in the chapel and he didn’t look like he belonged to any motherland she could name. His hair was a medium brown with big swatches of gray over the top of his ears, like a child had placed their dirty hands on either side of his face while kissing him. He wasn’t fat, but his shoulders were broad and his shirts always seemed tight across his back. This was a man who bought his own clothes, she thought one day, for no reason she could put her finger on.

During mass, when Father Ted asked them to share the kiss of peace, Carmen turned around and nodded to the man. Sometimes he nodded back; sometimes he moved his hand upward and back and forth in an almost neighborly wave of hello. When she had the precious few seconds to see the man’s face from across the dark chapel, she would quickly save the images, like she used to capture bugs in a jar as a child, and wait to go home to examine them in the privacy of her own room.

He never once smiled her way, though she was sometimes convinced he gave her meaningful glances. He looked to be her age, mid-forties. The only signs of his aging were the gray in his hair and the heavy lines running jaggedly across his forehead—roadmaps of hard times. He kept his bangs straight, as she imagined his mother had cut them when he was a child, but whether it was an intentional trick to hide the lines or a habit he never outgrew she would never know. His eyes were some color of brown, but if they were kind or not was hard to tell since his glances toward her were so quick it was like trying to hold on to the light from a lightning bug.

When she fell asleep at night, she thought of his dented and rough face tattle-telling to the world about how his youthful cheeks had been covered in acne. Sometimes, after the kiss of peace, she had to hold fast to the wooden pew to keep from walking toward him, placing her hands over the gray in his hair and pulling his face down to hers. Carmen wanted to take her tongue and plunge it deeply into each indentation in his skin. She wanted to taste the anger and the agony and the humiliation that still lived inside each small valley, her fluids releasing him from his scars. She didn’t mind if she had to swallow his pain. She would do it to see him smile, even just a little.

A few weeks ago, he’d stopped coming to mass. As each day went by without the man sitting by the candles, Carmen felt a loss as horrifying as when her own mother died.

“Do you speak English?” she asked Gus one evening after mass in a surprisingly businesslike tone.

Gus nodded.

“The man who used to sit here,” she indicated the pew near the votive candles. “Do you know anything about him? Where he might have gone? I just worry since we used to see him so often.” Using the word “we” made it seem as if she and Gus were on the same page.

Gus looked deeply into her eyes as she spoke. He had longed for the day when he could study her face as someone does when they dream of ice-cold water on a hot afternoon. But as she spoke, Gus understood that she didn’t care about anything but having her answer. All she saw standing in front of her was the man who cleaned the church. The man in the uniform. Her deliberate pronunciation, as if she didn’t trust that he did speak English, made him sad. She would be like turning on a cold-water tap after his hot baths with Ana. This Carmen was cool, Gus realized, suddenly relieved to be free of his love for her. He preferred the warmth of a soft woman’s doughy arms to the crisp veneer of this thin woman’s skin.

Still, he had loved her for many months and therefore felt a certain obligation to her. “I can ask Father. He is sure to know.”

“Thank you,” Carmen said, reaching for her wallet. She pulled out a ten-dollar bill and Gus took it with a small bow, acknowledging his appreciation.

* * *

Father Ted did know where Leo, the man by the candles, had gone. “That man wanted to do good in the world, Gus. He is a missionary now. In Guanajuato, Mexico. Peace be with him.” By the time Gus told Carmen, Leo had been in Mexico for close to a month.

A month ago, after the six o’clock mass, Leo waited until he and Father Ted were alone in the chapel. “I have thoughts of ending my life, Father. Sometimes I wake up at night with my chest on fire and I think, ‘What can I do to fan the flames?’ I have to leave this place. I have to create a new past, while there’s still time.”

Over the years, Father Ted heard many words like these. Recriminations and hurt feelings and tears tended to come out of people’s mouths as soon as the church emptied, and one thing the priest learned over the years was how to separate drama from truth. From Leo, he heard only truth.

After talking to Father Ted, Leo stayed alone in the chapel, taking in the emptiness. He didn’t think he was so different from most men. He had a lifetime of regret, but he was willing to carry his burden so long as he could make life for his own children better than his own. At seventeen Leo joined the army to support his soon-to-be-born oldest son. He stayed in ten years longer than he intended until his wife had given birth to three sons—all the children they were going to have.

She didn’t want Leo to leave the military, but he had dreams of being a teacher. As a child, Leo had run to school as early as the doors opened. He bathed himself in his education and walked home at the end of the day feeling more dried out and parched the closer he got to his apartment. In class, he collected little gold stars he saw again in his sleep at night. They reminded him he could fly.

After leaving the military, Leo cleaned bathrooms at an office building in the middle of the night in downtown San Antonio and took college classes in the morning. “Thank God none of the neighbors see him leaving in that uniform,” he heard his wife tell her mother over the phone one day. While he cleaned the office building, he thought of what he was giving his own sons: the image of a man who would sacrifice for them, for their future, even if no one had been that man for him. These were his proudest moments. He didn’t need gold stars. His sons were shining in his dreams now.

He wanted to talk to his sons about his time in the army and tell them about how he’d shined other men’s shoes and was careful never to reveal to them what he thought of a man who would ask another man to shine his shoes. He wanted his sons to know these menial acts were his gifts to them so they would never have to shine a shoe or clean a toilet, but his sons found other people to admire instead. They came home from school talking about sports figures and their friends’ fathers and Leo would feel a rush of shame that he was not considered worthy of such talk.

While he went to college and worked, the money was tight. He could hear his wife shush the boys when they asked for things there was not enough money for, like going to expensive soccer camps or taking vacations to theme parks. She shushed them in a way that made it clear she was putting the blame squarely on his shoulders. When he graduated from college and got a job teaching math at a local high school, there was no celebration.

His sons looked at him like he was a bookcase filled with things they might read one day, just not today. Teresa, his wife, found a group of friends to play Bunko with. She smiled whenever one of them called, then turned from him as if he was not welcome to witness her small joys.

They lived like fish in a cloudy bowl, endlessly circling each other with nowhere to go and no end in sight. There were diversions, like the nice woman who taught with him at the high school. She seemed interested in what he had to say, but Leo knew that what seemed like a present today would only end up at the back of the closet soon enough. He was not about to allow anyone else to unwrap him.

His sons were almost grown now. He couldn’t imagine what would happen if they ever became successful. They would rub it in his face like he had somehow worked hard to prepare them to be failures. He had to go. He’d either find a sense of importance or check out. Father Ted located importance on the map of Mexico.

Leo left after packing a small suitcase and draining the family’s savings account. He never told them where he was going or even that he was going. He was afraid to see a look of indifference cross their faces. And the money, never enough for Teresa or the boys, was more than enough for him.

In the evenings, Leo walked the hilly streets of Guanajuato wondering why there was never a time he walked downhill in this city; it seemed like everywhere he needed to go was always uphill. He wondered if the streets played tricks on him at night, like the man who pushed the rock up a mountain every day only to have it roll back down the mountain at night. Leo walked toward the Hidalgo Market trying to think in Spanish so his words might sound believable when he spoke them out loud.

Halfway up the hill, he stopped to wipe his forehead. The hottest time of the day was right now. 5:30. Same as in San Antonio, Leo thought. He briefly wondered what his sons might be doing back in Texas, then forgot to answer himself as he sucked in some new air and trudged up the rest of the winding street toward the Market and the Church of Belen.

Mexico sucked Leo in so quickly he hardly remembered the mess he left behind. He worked with the Jesuits now, helping to teach children in some of the poorer barrios in the city. He felt needed in Mexico, like lost money rediscovered in a blue jean pocket.

In the Church of Belen, Leo moved toward the pew closest to the candles. He liked the smell of sulfur as the matches were lit and the hopeful expression on the faces of the people who lit the candles. Sometimes he heard them whispering, “Dios, por favor sana a mi padre,” or “Querida María, madre de dios, por favor traer dinero.”

Leo stepped back from the pew to allow an elderly woman to pass by him on her way to the candles. She lit a large candle, moved her mouth in prayer, crossed herself, and tossed some heavy coins into the small bank by the votive case. Leo stood against the wall until she passed by him again, waited to see the flash of light as the door opened, then darkness as it closed.

He walked toward the flickering candle and blew it out.

Denise Tolan teaches, writes, hikes, and bikes. She has been published in Reed Magazine, Quirk Literary Journal, and Magna Publications. Denise is currently at work on a novel, My Mexico, and has completed a short story collection, The History of Tedium.