Two vacations lent significant portions to this piece of fiction. The church came from Santa Fe, NM. The musicians came from Austin, TX. Together they formed the backbone of this tale. Although it strays from my usual speculative style, I think it’s one of my better stories. It was published in October 2018 by Wild Musette Journal for their “Vegetable Pulp” issue.
On the Flame of One Candle
by DL Shirey
Shrine. Perhaps too big a word for such a small saint, but people passing through Austin know where to find her. The table is wedged into a narrow notch at the dark end of the spare, little church, next to the storage closet.
As he does each morning before unlocking the doors, Carlo runs a feather duster along the wooden frame bolted to the wall above the table. It’s a reproduction of a fifteenth-century portrait: a woman finely dressed, hair pulled up and garnished with flowers. Dainty fingers lay on her viola strings, a look of serenity on her face as if she just heard something heavenly.
Carlo feels overdressed. Black shirt, crisply-ironed, black slacks and polished leather shoes. Father Galeano wants him that way, says anyone who represents the Church should dress appropriately. Even Carlo, the caretaker, who ministers the shrine of St. Cecilia and the musicians who seek her.
Every day before he opens the door Carlo dusts. After cleaning the portrait, he picks up each ruby-glass candleholder and runs the feathers beneath it. One by one he tosses yesterday’s burnt remnants and replaces them with fresh votives. From his pocket Carlo pulls a Bic lighter and sparks it at the top of a tapered candle that rises tall above the others. Father Galeano calls it the starter candle.
There used to be matches, but the box would go missing almost as quickly as it was replaced. There used to be a shallow bowl for the faithful to place their coins, now it’s a slot and lock on a box bolted to the table. Carlo produces the key. Inside are some quarters, one worn and folded bill and a chipped saxophone reed. There are always guitar picks.
The money is put in a strongbox in the storage closet, the other offerings he piles in a wicker basket. There’s a cardboard box for lost and found with a pair of sunglasses and an old porkpie hat. Carlo fingers through the key ring, locks the strongbox and closet, then makes his way across the spare room to the tall double doors. The transom above the entry has the church’s only window. A piece of stained glass is missing, the hole patched with duct tape.
This small church is crumbling at the edges, with the rest of the neighborhood. It was built across the street from the bus station, back when Greyhounds were a first-class ride and every seat filled. They now roll in on balding tires, noisy brakes or engines smoking heavily, each bus with only a few souls equally in need of work. Carlo feels more at home here than he does at the big church downtown, where Father Galeano presides.
Galeano first saw Carlo at hospice. It would have been hard to miss the broad-shouldered man who stood six and a half feet tall, impossible not to notice the tenderness Carlo showed the bedridden. Whenever Galeano came to serve last rites, there would be Carlo, unasked, standing to the side, his baritone humming a soulful, sacred tune. And as Father Galeano made his final sign of the cross, Carlo would go back to washing sheets or emptying bedpans. Yet it wasn’t dedication or compassion that made Galeano offer Carlo the caretaker job as much as the man’s imposing size. The bus station draws a pretty rough crowd.
The street people know there are no handouts at the church. Neither do they panhandle anyone carrying a musical instrument because the big man in black clothes won’t like it. The beggars concentrate on people exiting Greyhounds and those across the street waiting for the downtown bus. Any visitor to the shrine is off limits.
Carlo unlocks the door and finds a man sitting on the stoop. He looks up and hooks his clean, brown hair behind an ear, his other arm drapes the waist of a guitar case. “Hello, Father,” he says, but Carlo doesn’t correct the man’s assumption. It makes Carlo feel good when he’s mistaken for clergy. He even lets the collar of his white undershirt show beneath his black button-down. Carlo would never pretend to be a priest, but he wants visitors to know he is part of this church, that he’s here if anybody needs him.
Carlo asks the man to wait while he sees to the trash. Taking a garbage bag from his back pocket, Carlo picks up scraps of litter clumped beneath the raggedy hedge of boxwoods lining the walk. The trash is compliments of the prevailing wind and overflowing bins of the city bus stop a half-block up from the church.
Brushing back his limp black hair, Carlo shades his dark eyes from sun, watching two men pick their way through traffic, from the Greyhound station across the street. Carlo can tell they are newly arrived to Austin by the way they carry their burdens; they don’t seem to feel the weight of the backpacks, the street is crossed in an earnest trot as if they’re sure of what lies ahead, and they grip their instrument cases—accordion and fiddle—with purpose. They are not strangers to one another; a playful shove and a concerned sideways glance demonstrate familiarity. By their looks, Carlo thinks they may be brothers.
Carlo can see the difference between those coming to Austin and the ones moving on. The man sitting on the church steps is leaving town. He chews the edge of a callused finger and stares ahead vacantly, his shoulders hunch from unseen weight. He doesn’t return the brothers’ greetings as they enter the church, but does accept Carlo’s big hand to help pull him to his feet.
From the back, all three visitors look the same: shaggy hair on thin frames, old blue jeans and well-traveled shoes. Their t-shirts vary in color and depict different bands, testimony to the owners’ musical tastes. The brothers drop their worldly goods in the spaces between pews and move across the room to the solitary flame in the corner. The shrine is so small there isn’t room for three, so the guitar player flops down in the front row pew and lets the brothers go first. He must be twice as old as the young men lighting prayers.
Carlo grabs an old pushbroom, more to lean on than to sweep. He watches the brothers clasp hands as families do when saying grace at the dinner table.
“Prayers rise to heaven on the flame of one candle,” Carlo says in a hushed voice, though his resonant baritone is still too loud for the room. It’s one of his favorite lyrics, but he said it in monotone, not in song.
“And the Lord never gives us more than we can handle,” the guitar player finishes the rhyme. Then he drops his head and takes a deep, ragged breath.
It surprises Carlo that a man wearing Black Sabbath would know a gospel song. Carlo approaches the guitar player and sees he is crying, silent except for an overloud intake of air. Carlo sits next to the man, but not close to him.
The brothers cross themselves like good Catholics. Carlo hears a clink in the donation box, then there’s nothing but the sound of street traffic after the two men grab their belongings and leave. The guitar player sits up straight and gives his eyes and cheeks a backhand wipe. He moves his guitar case closer to his feet and Carlo isn’t sure whether the man is safeguarding his instrument or inviting Carlo to move closer.
“Don’t mean to interrupt. I’m Carlo.”
“Killian.” The man wipes his palm across his t-shirt before gripping Carlo’s hand.
“Looks to me like you’re leaving us. No luck finding a gig?”
“More like bad luck.”
“Lots of venues here,” says Carlo, “But Austin can be a tough town if you don’t know nobody.”
“True for most towns, Father.”
Carlo still didn’t correct the designation. By the way Killian hooks his elbow back on the stretch of wood between them, the man seems to want to talk.
“My Daddy knew the booker at Antones. Got me a slot in the afternoons all next week. Might have panned out, but I’ll never know. Need to catch a bus back to Chicago.”
“Another gig?” Carlo asks.
“No, my Daddy died.” The words hang in the air like a sad, sustained chord.
Killian fidgets as if he’d been sitting too long, eventually pushing out the story in short sentences and long pauses: raised in Chicago, his Daddy still has a house there, a sister far from dependable, no choice but to rush back and see to everything. And something else, just as urgent.
“My Daddy’s guitars,” he says. “I got to get home before my sister takes them. She don’t care what they mean to me, it won’t keep her from the pawn shop if she’s short on rent. Which she always is.”
Killian unlatches his case, laying it flat; gently, as if it were full of eggs.
“This is one of his.” Pride in his voice. “Gibson, 1967 Hummingbird. The guitar he used for gigs, and the one I take on the road.”
“It’s a beauty.”
“Yeah. And there’s two more at home. A ’26 Gibson flattop and a ’28 National steel guitar. If I don’t get back Glorie will pawn them for a coupla hundred, then they’ll show up on eBay and fetch thousands. But they’re priceless to me. I’ll never sell.” He caresses the tattered felt lining of the open guitar case.
The rest of the story came easier. Daddy played the clubs around Chicago, stayed in town to raise his kids, taught his boy every style from blues to gospel to country picking. When it came time for the son make a living on the road, his Daddy’s connections got him handshakes and welcomes.
Killian’s eyes shine in remembrance, “Can’t hold a tune like my Daddy. That man could really sing. But he taught me how to fingerpick like the dickens.”
With the nostalgic smile came a feeble shrug. Killian looks away from Carlo, down at the worn pickguard on the Hummingbird. “I didn’t get a chance to start my gig at Antones. Need another fifty for the bus.”
Carlo heard the husky desperation in the man’s voice, the shame in asking for money. It had a prick of familiarity to all the come-on lines used around the neighborhood; ‘Excuse me, sir’ they always start and end with pitiable pleas and sad faces. Killian’s story seemed real, but so had others; often enough for Father Galeano to impose another rule for a soft touch like Carlo: when you dress for work, leave all your money in your other pants.
“I’d like to help out. Really,” Carlo answers.
“I understand, Father.”
With a sigh, Killian snaps the latches over his Gibson and grabs the handle to leave. Carlo stands with him, pauses for an instant and places his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Why not light a candle and see what St. Cecilia comes back with,” Carlo says. “I’ll give you some privacy.”
Carlo unlocks the storage closet and pulls the knob. The open door cloisters the shrine like the wall of a confessional. He hears Killian whisper a prayer and the starter candle clink against a ruby glass cup that holds a votive. Carlo did not expect to hear the sound of several coins rattle into the donation box.
An idea brightens Carlo’s eyes, but guilt dims them just as quickly. He rubs at the back of his neck as if friction might help with the decision. He remembers Father Galeano’s warning, not to give money for a beggar’s hard-luck story. But when would a panhandler give a nickel to St. Cecelia? And even if Killian’s story were true, why would the man give to charity the money he desperately needed?
Carlo glances at the strongbox on the shelf before him, but averts his eyes just as quickly. When he hears a solemn ‘Thank you, Father’ from the shrine, Carlo reaches for the ring of keys in his pocket. In his mind he sees Father Galeano shake his head, his eyes flashing both disappointment and reproach. Behind him, Killian’s feet shuffle across the old floorboards, the bright light from the open door dims for a moment as the man exits. Carlo turns to see Killian pause on the porch and his head drop to his chest. The musician regrips his guitar case and takes one step away from the church.
“Killian. Hang on a second,” Carlo shouts and pulls the keys from his pocket.
Carlo’s hands are full when he joins Killian on the stairs outside the church. In the crook of his arm he cradles the open strongbox, fumbling to pluck up bills and coins with his thick fingers. “Here,” he says, finally.
“No, Father. I can’t take your money,” Killian says.
“Just hold it for a minute. I’ll be right back.”
Carlo thrust the money into Killian’s hands and takes the strongbox back into the church. A few seconds later Carlo returns with the porkpie hat. He holds it out in silence until Killian realizes that it’s for the money. Killian drops the bills and coins into the hat and Carlo places it on the bottom step.
“That’s ten dollars there,” Carlo says, “Church’s money. I expect to get every cent back.”
Killian looks down at the hat, then to the big man next to him, confusion contorting the guitar player’s face. The flat line of his lips curve to a smile as soon as Carlo begins singing.
“Prayers rise to heaven on the flame…” Carlo stops, clears his throat, repeats and finishes the line. Finding his full voice, the baritone doubles in volume. “The Lord never gives me more than I can handle.”
People exiting the city bus turn their heads toward the singer. A small boy pulls his mother toward the church. A panhandler folds his cardboard sign and walks away.
Carlo pauses the song, fingers still snapping the beat. He says to Killian, “Tune up that Hummingbird and let’s play some of that Gospel your Daddy taught you.”