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Light a Candle by Terry Azamber
published in Volume 6, Issue 3 on September 1st, 1999

My mother has a strange relationship with God. She deals with Him like a commodities broker, promising certain actions for special favors, always fulfilling her part of the bargain. Mom was raised a Catholic, but abandoned her religion after her first marriage. She was already married to her second husband, my father, when she made her first peculiar covenant with the Almighty.

She made her first contract with God several years before I was born, when she and Dad toured Mission San Miguel. They had already visited a nearby winery, and Mom blames her enthusiastic sampling of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for her impulsive decision when they reached Mission San Miguel.

While Dad took pictures of the fountain and prickly pear cactus in front of the whitewashed adobe mission, she drifted into the old chapel. She wandered down the aisle, past the wooden pews, looking at the frescos on the wall, the statues, the eye of God inside a sky blue pyramid over the altar. She was seized with a sudden desire to negotiate a contract. She knelt down at the altar and clasped her hands.

"I'll become Catholic again if You let my book be published," she told God. "But I won't stop practicing birth control and I won't stop supporting abortion rights. If You accept my terms let me receive notice within three months that my book has been accepted for publication. If not I'll know that You don't ever want me to be Catholic again."

Mom tells this story when anyone in the family asks her how her first mystery novel got published. Her novel had been rejected by eight publishers before it was finally accepted. She always adds that if she hadn't been so drunk, and if she had known God was going to accept her offer, she would have tacked on a few more conditions.

Mom blames what happened to me on the fact that she sent her children to parochial school. She had only agreed to send us to St. Anthony's School because of another deal she made with God. For two years she had recited rosaries to the Virgin Mary and said prayers to St. Gerald Majella, the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth, and she still hadn't gotten pregnant. She finally knelt down in front of the statue of St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, and promised that if he would intercede with God for her, she would have her children baptized Catholic and send them to parochial school until they were old enough for college.

Ten months later she had my brother Troy, and after a couple of years my sister Nicole was born. Mom's doctor told her not to have any more children, but when Nicole was almost three Mom had me. She blamed my conception on the trip to Napa Valley she and Dad took to celebrate their anniversary.

"It was all those wineries we visited," she said. "Something always happens to me when I drink too much Chardonnay."

I never guessed that the conversation I had with Father Domino after school late in January would have such an effect on my mother. I was walking down the hallway at St. Anthony's School after the last bell rang when I saw Father Domino coming out of one of the fourth grade classrooms. He saw me and put his arm around me.

"Josh, how's your family doing?" he asked.

"Fine," I said, looking up at his round face. He was wearing a plaid fleece-lined jacket and I could see his black shirt and white band collar in the gap between his lapels.

The people in the parish were fascinated by Father Domino. He was half Italian and half Cuban. It was rumored that his father worked for the Mafia in Fort Lauderdale and his brother had been arrested for possession with intent to sell when the Coast Guard boarded his yacht near Elliot Key and found ten kilos of cocaine.

Father Domino seemed to have all the answers to the mysteries of the universe when he visited my eighth grade religious class. I noticed how people spoke to him in a reverent tone, as if he was special, like the pope or a saint. He had been in the parish for a few years, replacing Father Hansel.

Father Hansel was only in his early forties, but he would stare off into space when he visited our religious education class, even during the question and answer period. He walked as if moving one foot in front of the other was a tedious task. He always said Mass in a monotone and sighed frequently during the Homily which was usually about coping with a crumbling world until we finally left it for Purgatory and hopefully Heaven. Father Hansel suddenly disappeared, and when I asked my religious education teacher where he was she told me he had left the priesthood and was living in Eureka.

"I was impressed with the type of questions you were asking me when I was in your religious education class last week," Father Domino said. "The church can use a mind like yours when you get older. You know that we pray every Sunday for young men like yourself to have a vocation. Have you ever thought of becoming a priest when you grow up?"

"No, not really," I said, staring up at his white collar.

"After I left your class I wondered if your questions meant that God had given you a vocation." He gestured toward the huge grey church. "I have to go to the church to check on the tracts. Why don't you come with me and we'll talk about it?"

I wasn't sure I wanted to be a priest, but his interest in me made me feel warm inside. We crossed the parking lot while he talked about how nice it was to teach people about the significance of the sacrifice of Christ, to see the smiles on the faces of parents when you baptized their baby, assuring them that his young soul was saved from Hell.

"One of the nuns at the high school I went to told me that God smiles down on a priest's parents and saves them a place in Heaven because they've raised a son for Him." Father Domino was silent for a moment. "It meant a lot to me to know that I could offer up the Masses I said for the souls of my family."

I looked at him and remembered the stories about his father and his brother. We walked up the concrete steps and in through the south entrance of St. Anthony Church. Father Domino checked that there were enough tracts in the foyer before we stepped into the Guadalupe Chapel. A mural depicting the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe was above the glass wall sectioning off the small chapel from the rest of the church. There must have been a funeral earlier that day because I smelled a faint whiff of incense in the air. Father Domino gestured toward the marble altar on the dais in the main part of the church, visible through the glass. His round face lit up and his voice was hushed when he spoke.

"The best part about being a priest is standing up there in front of all those people while you say Mass. You feel as if the power of God is pouring through you." He stared through the glass at the altar for a moment before he turned to me. "Let's light a candle and pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary for your vocation."

I followed him down the right aisle to the statue of the Virgin Mary. He took a slender stick from the metal container and lit one of the large candles in the red glass candle holders. As the wick caught fire and glowed white, I felt as if Father Domino had seen something special in me that no one had noticed before. The burning candle sealed my destiny.

I caught the FAX bus afterwards. As the bus passed the Seven-Eleven convenience store, I saw Troy's car in the parking lot. He was leaning against the front fender taking money out of his wallet and handing it to a girl wearing a beige cashmere coat. She slipped something into his shirt pocket.

Troy would occasionally sit out by our pool and slowly wave his hands in front of his face, talking to himself about the colors of the trails he saw coming out of his fingers or the way the house seemed to undulate. Sometimes I saw Dad watching him through the patio door. He had grown up in a more liberal era, and he tended to view Troy's experiments with recreational drugs as a hobby he would eventually outgrow. Mom didn't seem to be aware that Troy used drugs.

The bus stopped a couple blocks from our house. I walked down the street past the landscaped lawns. We lived in a large English Tudor style house set back from the road on the Bluffs. A car was parked in our driveway with a San Joaquin Memorial letter jacket on the back seat.

Nicole leaned against the front door with her arms around some guy's neck. His hands were up under the blouse of her pastel school uniform and he was kissing her neck while she made soft moaning sounds. They didn't seem to notice that I was there. I always felt strange when I saw Nicole with her constantly changing string of boyfriends, as if I was seeing oranges growing on the clipped boxwood along the front of our house.

I walked around to the back of the house, through the black wrought-iron gate, past the swimming pool, and went inside through the back door. Mom was in her study jotting down ideas for a new mystery novel. She looked up only long enough to tell me that Dad was picking up Chinese takeout for supper on his way home from his office.

I never spent much time with Dad. He was a dentist, and he often came home late because of a patient that needed cavities filled when she was only scheduled to have her teeth cleaned, or a wisdom tooth that took longer to remove than he thought it would. I went to my room and lay down on my bed. I stared at the ceiling and thought about the look on Father Domino's face when he talked about being a priest.

I didn't have a chance to talk to anyone about what Father Domino had said to me until my family was gathered around the dining room table to eat. Troy scooped fried Chow Mein out of one of the white cartons spread along the dark green tablecloth, and Mom was passing the Won Ton to Nicole, when I told them about my vocation.

"I'm going to become a priest," I said.

My family stopped filling their plates and stared at me. Mom dropped the Won Ton, scattering pale flaky crumbs on the green tablecloth. No one spoke. Our dining room was decorated with dark green wallpaper with cream fleurs-de-lis on it. Suddenly the wallpaper seemed so dark that it swallowed up the cream fleurs-de-lis. I felt as if the walls were moving backwards and the room was as huge as a ballroom.

Dad was the only bright spot in the room. He grinned and raised his eyebrows when he looked down the table at Mom. Her mouth was twisted and she stared hard at me.

"Like Hell," she said. "You'll become a priest over my dead and rotting body."

The words came rushing out of me, a tinge of desperation in my voice, as if Mom's disapproval might actually have the power to thwart the will of God. Mom had proved that she had a lot of clout with the Lord. She might pull off another deal, and I would never get to fulfill my destiny.

"I talked to Father Domino today. He thinks I may have a vocation, that God is calling me to the priesthood. He says that if I become a priest my parents will go to Heaven. I can offer Masses so that my family's sins will be forgiven and they won't go to Hell."

"That blabbermouth! He told you, didn't he? I thought priests were never supposed to talk about anything you said in Confession. From now on I'm going to Confession at St. Helen's where no one knows me." Nicole wadded up a paper napkin and threw it at me.

"You can't party if you become a priest." Troy's pupils were dilated, a sure sign that he had already ingested whatever chemical he had purchased in the parking lot of the Seven-Eleven.

I searched my mind and dug up a couple of phrases I'd heard in my religious education class. "That's a worldly pleasure. I'm going to spend my time in spiritual contemplation."

I was beginning to enjoy myself. My brother and sister obviously didn't appreciate the sacrifice I was willing to make for their benefit, but that made it even more significant and noble. I felt as if I was in one of those paintings in the Vatican, where the sky opened up and a choir of blond angels with white wings hovered over me singing. I could imagine the Blessed Virgin Mary, wearing her blue and white robes, looking down at me and smiling, her hands clasped in front of her as she praised me for my unselfish decision.

"I don't need your help to get to Heaven." Mom glared at me and crumpled up her paper napkin in her fist. "I didn't spend nineteen hours in labor to give birth to a priest, and I don't want to hear any more advice from Father Domino. He hands out enough of his opinions on Sunday. He should keep his mouth shut the rest of the week."

"He's only thirteen. He won't be running off to the Seminary tomorrow. He's got a few years to think about this. Let's not worry about this yet," Dad said.

Mom's eyes were huge and glossy, a tinge of fear on her face. When she caught me staring at her she glanced away and started picking at the chow mein on her plate.

When I examined my family, it was obvious that they desperately needed salvation. Although Dad insisted that we go to church every Sunday, Nicole was only interested in how many guys she could tempt into having unclean thoughts. She sat next to the aisle, flicking back her long hair, pretending that it was an accident that her dress kept rising up her thighs. Troy slouched down in the wooden pew cleaning his fingernails with his pocket knife, mumbling "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy" when it was time for the congregation to respond.

Dad had been raised a Methodist, but he converted to Catholicism when Mom was pregnant with Troy. After all these years he still couldn't remember the words to the Nicene Creed.

Mom didn't consider attending Mass to be part of her contract with God. She was always making up excuses to get out of going to church. When she did go, she spent most of the Mass sitting with her arms crossed, staring at the stained glass windows. To Mom being Catholic meant that she showed up for most of the Holy Days of Obligation and gave up something for Lent.

I stayed after school a couple times a week to visit with Father Domino. We sat in the rectory drinking cranberry juice while he talked about the duties of a priest, counseling couples about to be married, giving last rites to people who were dying so they would go to Purgatory instead of Hell. I didn't tell him that I thought being a priest sounded like a boring job. It made me feel good that he wanted to spend time with me. He gave me a book about the saints and I read it after my homework was done. I didn't realize that Mom was annoyed by this until I overheard her complaining to Dad.

"I don't ever get to see the kids anymore except when they show up for dinner. Nicole is always on the phone or off with some guy. I don't know where Troy is half the time. Josh spends all his time holed up in his room reading religious stuff."

I was surprised that she had even noticed what I was doing. Mom was always busy researching and writing her mystery books. Most of the time I never saw her until she came out of her study to fix dinner. After I heard her talking to Dad, I started leaving my bedroom door open. Whenever I heard someone walking down the hall toward my bedroom, I would grab my rosary off the night stand, slide off the bed, kneel on the floor, and close my eyes while I prayed the Hail Mary. Once I stole a glance at the doorway and saw Mom standing there with her arms crossed, shaking her head.

During the next couple of weeks Mom spent a lot of time on the phone to her agent and her publisher. She was scheduled to go on a book tour to promote her recently published mystery novel. Mom was usually excited about her book tours. But something was different this time. The night before she left, she kept dropping things, a glass dish full of creamed corn, silverware, the cordless phone. She seemed to be surrounded by a high voltage circuit, tense and temperamental, her eyes never resting on anyone's face throughout dinner, her words short and clipped.

After dinner she went to her bedroom to pack. I sat on my parents’ king-size bed watching her. She yanked clothes out of the closet at random, hardly glancing at them before she tossed them aside. Dad tried to help her decide what to pack. He held up various blouses and skirts, but she kept changing her mind. She would reject a garment only to pack it a moment later. She stuffed her traveling iron into her brown suitcase, not bothering wrapping the cord neatly around the iron like she usually did. The cord became tangled in a pile of clothes.

Mom reached into the suitcase and flung a dark blue blouse against the wall. "Why did they schedule this damned tour now? April is a rotten time for it!"

She covered her face with her hands. Her shoulders shook with her sobs and she melted down onto her knees to the carpet. Dad moved swiftly across the room, gesturing for me to leave. I left the door open as I went into the hall. When I looked back, I saw Dad kneel down and wrap his arms around her.

"I'm always writing my books or going off on trips. We didn't spend enough time with our kids. They've turned out to be people I didn't want them to be, and it's our fault." She hid her face against his chest and her fingers clutched and crumpled his shirt.

Dad stroked her hair soothingly. "Shush, honey. Our kids are all right. They haven't turned out so bad."

"Troy is practically a stranger who doesn't even want to be around us. Nicole takes up with any guy who'll look at her. Josh thinks we're doomed to burn in Hell. Do you think he thought up this idea of becoming a priest just to aggravate me?" Her voice wavered like the sound from an old radio with a faulty speaker. Dad's arms tightened around her.

"Josh just wants attention," Dad said. "He doesn't even know about the problems you had with the church over your first marriage."

Mom brushed the tears from her face with the back of her hand. "I never worried that Troy would become a priest. All I ever worried about was that he might get some girl pregnant. When I gave him a box of condoms he laughed and said, 'Gee Mom, you were ripped off. I usually get these for fifty cents less at Rite Aid.'"

She took an early morning flight to Los Angeles the next morning. I was still asleep when she left. Dad was the only one to see her leave, dropping her off at the airport before he went to his office. As I waited at the bus stop for the FAX bus that would take me to school, I glanced up at the sky, thinking of Mom nestled in a big silver bird heading south, even though I knew her flight would have landed at LAX at least an hour ago.

On Sunday, after Mass was over, Dad insisted that we go into the Guadalupe Chapel. "I want to light a candle for your mother so her tour will go well and she'll come home safe."

Dad always did this when Mom went on a book tour. Troy, Nicole and I followed him into the Guadalupe Chapel. Nicole sat in a pew adjusting the straps on her black high heel shoes. Troy leaned against the wall with his arms crossed while Dad lit one of the candles in the red candle holders beside the statue of the Virgin Mary. He took out his wallet to pay for the candle, paused and stared at the glowing flame for a moment, then lit another large candle before he slipped the dollar bills into the collection box.

"Why did you light two candles?" Troy asked.

"Your mother was pretty upset before she left. She's having a rough time right now." Dad turned and pulled down the kneeler in the nearest pew. "Come on, let's pray for her."

We knelt down beside Dad. I closed my eyes and tried to pray for Mom, but I didn't know what to pray for. I kept remembering the things she had said the night before she left. I finally said the Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be, crossed myself and hoped God would know what Mom needed.

Mom called us every couple of days and occasionally sent postcards. She came home on Tuesday, just a couple weeks before the school year ended. By Friday I realized that she was trying to change our family. She was waiting for us in the family room when we got home from school, a glass of iced tea in her hand. She asked us about our friends, what subject we liked best in school, who was our favorite rock singer. Nicole and I sat on the edge of the couch answering her questions in halting, stilted voices. It was as if we were being interviewed by a distant relative who hadn't seen us since we were two years old.

On Thursday she bought a Monopoly game and insisted that the entire family play it that evening. We sat at the dining room table rolling the dice, moving our markers, exchanging paper money. Nicole and I argued over who would get the car as a marker. She ended up with the shoe and bought every piece of property she could get her hands on. Mom got both utilities and all the railroads except for Reading Railroad. She landed on the Go To Jail square almost every time she went around the board. Troy refused to buy anything but Boardwalk and Park Place. He put hotels on both of them and Dad went bankrupt when he landed there.

On Saturday Dad and Mom wanted to take us to Wiliker's for lunch, but Nicole said she had made plans to meet a friend, so only Troy and I went with them. During lunch, while they were splitting a large order of onion rings, Dad and Troy decided to spend the afternoon shooting pool at Aces 'N Eights Billiards. They took Mom and me home after lunch.

We stood on the sidewalk and watched the car disappear around the corner for a moment before we wandered up the driveway. The wisteria was in bloom, flowing gracefully over the fence, a light breeze causing its tentacles to move gently as if it was waving at us. Mom touched the delicate purple flowers as if they were old friends that she hadn't seen in a long time. She bent down to smell their rich sweet perfume.

There must have been something euphoric in the scent because she laughed softly and spread her arms out, twirling around like a little girl. I watched her dancing on our driveway, her feet moving lightly over the concrete. I didn't want anything to spoil this day. I couldn't remember the last time that I had been alone with her. She stopped and smiled at me.

"Let's go in the backyard. We bought this house because it had such a great view of the Bluffs and the river. It feels like it's been forever since I've stopped working long enough to look at it."

We walked through the black wrought-iron gate. I heard the soft moaning before we saw them. Nicole and a dark-haired guy were entwined at the far side of the swimming pool, near the shallow end. The sun was glinting off the crystal blue water. Nicole's head was thrown back and her mouth was open. Through the wavering water it looked as if the guy had a second set of legs growing out of his hips.

Mom stopped and stared at them for a moment. She turned around without saying anything. I followed her back through the black wrought-iron gate into the front yard. She gazed up at the pale sky and her lips moved as if she was praying, but I didn't hear a sound.

I followed her up the sidewalk into the house. She went into the family room, opened the liquor cabinet, and poured herself a glass of red wine. I stood there watching her, feeling awkward and invisible.

"I don't know what to tell Nicole," she said. "I haven't been sure what's wrong or what's right ever since I got divorced from my first husband."

Mom had never talked about her first husband. When Nicole was ten, she rummaged through a box of odds and ends in the garage and found a picture of Mom in a white wedding gown, standing beside a tall man in a dark tuxedo. She was showing it to Troy and me when Mom came out carrying a load of laundry. Mom put down the laundry basket, took the picture, and went back into the house without saying anything. I never saw the picture again.

"Why did you get divorced from him?" I asked.

Mom sighed and sipped her wine for a moment before she spoke. "There were a lot of reasons. I used to lock myself in the bathroom when we were fighting. I'd sit on the edge of the bathtub clutching a towel and crying. I could hear him outside the door, rattling the door knob and shouting at me. When I left him, my side was covered with purple bruises because he had slammed me into a concrete wall."

Her breath was raspy, as if she had just run several miles pursued by demons. She gulped down the rest of her wine. I heard a faint sound of splashing water coming from outside. Mom didn't seem to notice. She stared straight ahead, her face hard and angry.

"I went to a priest for counseling. He told me God had joined us and I couldn't ever marry again or I'd be committing adultery and I'd burn in Hell. He made me feel as if I was evil and dirty to even want a divorce. I walked out of his office and I didn't go back to church until after I married your father."

She looked at me and bit her lip, her eyes huge and wet. I could see the pain of remembering in her face. She was crystal glass, and now I knew of a fragile part of her I would have never guessed existed. I felt uncomfortable, as if I had seen her naked. I could hear Father Domino's voice in my head when he talked about helping people and I wondered what he would have said to her.

"We had to get remarried by a priest before your father could go through his Confirmation. I went to talk to Father Hansel about getting my first marriage annulled by the Church. His clothes were wrinkled and he had his head on his desk when I came into his office. He understood why I had gotten divorced, but he said my reasons weren't good enough to get an annulment from the Church. He told me what to say on the statement." Mom's nose wrinkled with distaste at having to lie. "It didn't occur to me until after he left the priesthood what it must have cost him to tell people how to circumvent the very system he represented."

We gazed at each other for a moment. Mom suddenly came over and sat beside me on the couch. She wrapped her arms around me and laid her head on my shoulder. I held onto her, smelling the flowery scent of wine on her breath, until we heard Nicole open the back door and come into the house.

Troy graduated from San Joaquin Memorial that year. After school let out, Mom and Dad took us on a trip to Greece. We walked down narrow streets past the white cube-shaped houses on Mykonos, saw the windmills dotting the green patches of land below the pale purple mountains of Crete, and toured the Byzantine ruins of Mistra.

Nicole walked around on the white beaches in brightly colored string bikinis, flirting with the local guys who kept asking her to take them to America. Troy hung around the piers watching the fishing boats as they came in and out of the harbors. While we were touring the Acropolis in Athens, he told Mom and Dad he was thinking about joining the Navy when we got back home.

They talked him out of it during dinner. Dad promised if Troy would spend his first year of college in Fresno he would send him to any college he wanted after that. Mom kept drinking ouzo and touching Troy lightly on the arm. They seemed desperate to keep their family together, to try to fix what was wrong before their children disappeared and it was too late. Troy finally agreed to stay if they would send him to UC Santa Barbara and buy him a new car.

Late in August, a couple months after we got back from Greece, Nicole found out she was pregnant. Mom took her down to the Family Planning Clinic and stayed in the waiting room while Nicole had an abortion. A few days later she made an appointment for Nicole to see a psychologist. Nicole had been going to him for about a month, and I had already started high school at San Joaquin Memorial, when he suggested to Mom that we should have family counseling. Dad objected at first, but then he gave in.

Now we spend every Wednesday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. sitting around the psychologist's office looking at our hands and trying to say things that make us sound like a family. When I look at us sitting in our separate corners, I am reminded of being in church. I wonder if this is just another form of religion, or if we are trying to decipher the mystery of what we are supposed to be.

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