On Sunday mornings I liked to hold conversations with myself while walking to All Saints to serve Mass. I’d remind myself not to talk out loud, but I’d get so caught up in my banter, I couldn’t help it. Words leaked out the side of my mouth, and my hands flapped all over the place. Sometimes the slam of a car door or someone clearing his throat would snap me out of it. Embarrassed, I’d keep quiet for awhile, but then I’d get excited and start talking out loud again.
One Sunday morning I was “talking,” to Linda, a girl in my eight grade class. She hardly ever spoke to me, and when she did she treated me like something she’d just scraped off the bottom of her shoes. Of course, in my mind her contempt for me was just an act. She was just about to pour out her true feelings for me when an inconsiderate Buick and a puddle of acid rain in the gutter ended the conversation.
The beat up Hush Puppies that masqueraded as my Sunday best might not survive the water that Buick heaped on them. My mom would kill me if my shoes were ruined. I panicked and did what my old man always did under pressure--- I reeled off a string of F-bombs. It felt great when they were rolling off my tongue but as soon as my tirade ended the inevitable guilt settled in. After I was all cursed out I whispered an Act of Contrition, hoping to square things with the big JC before Mass started.
When I finally worked up the nerve to look at my shoes, I was relieved to find they weren’t as bad as I’d thought. When I walked they squeaked more than usual but they’d be nearly dry by the time Mass started. I noticed something else, though. In the commotion, the white hooded cassock I’d been carrying over my shoulder had gotten even more wrinkled.
I held it out in front of me and began ironing it with my hand. For every wrinkle I straightened, two more cropped up. As if ironing by hand wasn’t tedious enough, my mother had hung my cassock on a hangar that was too small. The darn thing nearly slid off every time I touched it. When my hand finally cramped into a useless claw, I chucked the hangar down the sewer.
Mom hadn’t bothered to iron my cassock even though I’d told her I’d be serving Mass with John on Sunday. I wondered why she couldn’t be more like his mom. She cooked, cleaned and ironed while also somehow managing to help out at school. I’d been going to All Saints for almost eight years yet I doubted any of the nuns even knew what my mom looked like.
John’s clothes were better than mine but our cassocks were supposed to even that out. Nobody could see what we were wearing underneath them. Only mine looked like I’d slept in it. If I hurried I might be able to use the radiator in the altar boys’ sacristy to steam the wrinkles out.
I was sweating and out of breath by the time I finally stepped inside the covered stairway which led up to the sacristy. When I started up the rubber treaded stairs, the fatigue and my wetter than usual socks caused my feet to land so heavily the echo hurt my ears.
“Boy, am I glad to see you. I was afraid I was going to have to serve this Mass by myself,” John said from the top of the stairs.
“You would’ve been fine,” I said, patting him on the arm as he stepped back to let me through.
The sacristy wasn’t much larger than a phone booth. It smelled like the industrial strength cleaning solvents that Jim, the church custodian, stored in the bottom of a large metal cabinet. He hung extra cassocks in that cabinet too, but the only one in there that morning was too small for me.
The radiator was cold. I opened a window, hoping the cool air would fire up the old broken down boiler in the church basement. While I waited for the familiar clang of the pipes that meant heat was rising, I looked at myself in the full length mirror hanging on the back of the double doors that separated the sacristy from the altar.
“That breeze feels great,” John chirped.
It wasn’t kicking on the boiler, but it was stirring up the cowlick on top of my head. I licked my hands and patted my scalp until my hair temporarily surrendered. My shoes were drying, but my navy blue polyester pants seemed to have risen even higher up my ankles. Occasionally, John glanced in the mirror too, apparently needing to remind himself that his clothes were perfect. The show off wore a turtleneck with brown slacks that came all the way down to his loafers.
“We’d better get our cassocks on,” John said.
The blasted radiator was still cold. John’s cassock was ironed and pressed so well I swore it put itself on while he stood there. I was almost convinced that mine didn’t look that bad until I stood next to him.
“Do I look okay?” somehow slipped out of my mouth.
“Sure,” he said in a tone that at first sounded sincere but grew phony when I kept repeating it to myself.
“Hey, did you do your math homework yet? I’m having trouble with the last few.” John asked.
There was a knock on the door before I could follow through on my plan to confuse him while pretending to help. In walked Mr. Mike, the old man in charge of the altar boys. He talked to us like a coach before the big game, and he always had a game plan for every Mass.
“Father Peck is saying this Mass,” he began, his heavy lisp tossing spit at us. “He likes less water with his wine than he used to. He wants those bells rung loud at consecration. I don’t have to remind you we’ll be watching.” The we he referred to was his network of elderly spies who watched the altar boys from their pews and reported any screw ups to him. He shook our hands with a clammy palm that smelled like the inside of a cigar box. “I’ll stop by after Mass to go over things. Best not to keep Father waiting.”
We walked behind the altar on our way to the priest’s sacristy. Whenever I went back there I always looked for the crooked white brick on the floor. I wondered if it opened a secret trap door that led to a dungeon of some kind. In reality there wasn’t anything more glamorous than a fuse box and a rickety flight of steps we climbed during Christmas and Easter so we could light the really high candles.
When we entered the sacristy, Father Peck was rocking on his heels, the muscles in his shoulders bulging under his vestments as he talked to Mr. Schaeffer, the lector for today’s mass. My old man called him Father Grab A Buck because he was always asking for money.
“Good morning boys. Mr. Schaeffer was just telling me that he needs a few more lectors. I told him you’d start this summer right after you graduate. Joey, that means your parents will have to buy you a suit jacket.”
I chuckled and good naturedly nodded my head. I secretly wanted him to embarrass John too so he’d know how it felt, but there wasn’t a darn thing his parents couldn’t buy him.
“Okay, let’s line up,” Father Peck said before removing his glasses and placing them on the counter.
John pushed his way to the front of the line so he’d get to pull the red velvet cord attached to a bell that signaled the start of Mass.
“I think I have a few sport coats at home that’ll fit you”, Mr. Schaefer whispered in my ear. He was short and dumpy and built nothing like I was. My face got so hot it felt like I was standing in front of a thousand lit matches.
As we processed to the bottom of the altar, I swore everyone in those pews that reeked of oil soap was gawking at my cassock and wincing at my squeaky shoes. Our new organist butchered the Prayer of St. Francis so badly everyone quit singing halfway through the first stanza. When he finally stopped playing noise, it was my job to take the thick red prayer book off the offertory table and hold it in front of Father Peck as he read the Opening Prayer. I raised it in front of my face while Father Peck squinted and thumbed through the pages, searching for the right prayer. The only thing that kept my spaghetti thin arms from dropping it was the secret hope that he’d lean down far enough so I could slam it shut on his nose before running like hell out of there. He somehow managed to recite the right prayer while keeping his nose just out of my reach.
When Mr. Schaefer started to read, John and I sat in wood high backed chairs with red cushions covered in plastic that wheezed when we shifted our butts. Mr. Schaeffer’s voice was so lifeless I thought he was reading the tax code instead of the Word of God. As I listened to him, my legs jiggled, my hands fidgeted, and my mind wanted to wander.
I tried to focus on Father Peck’s sermon. When he pointed at the scaffolding and the half painted church before going into a detailed analysis of the cash flow problems he was having with the church painting fund, Old Grab a Buck lost me. In my mind, I was arranging secret meetings with girls of all faiths inside those dark confessionals. I was convinced the girls in the choir were fighting over who was going to meet me behind the pipe organ after Mass. When I saw a woman smearing Chapstick on her lips, my imagination went into overdrive, transforming the baptismal font into a cascading waterfall with bikini clad girls parading under it.
It wasn’t until the congregation was halfway through reciting the Creed that I snapped out of it. I was so aroused; I was having a hard time standing up straight. As I gawked at the people standing in the pews I wondered if Mr. Mike’s spies were taking notes.
My attention improved during the offertory. Helping to prepare the gifts and ringing the bells at consecration kept my mind from running too far away. When I was tempted to daydream, I focused on the pain in my knees and lower back from kneeling.
It was almost Communion time. John and I knelt in front of the Tabernacle, waiting for Father Peck to finish chewing his host. The gold Tabernacle doors glistened as rays of sunlight seeped through the stained glass windows surrounding us. When Father Peck finally put his hand into the Tabernacle, the gray curtain inside folded over it like a magician’s hanky. When he turned around, he was holding a chalice in each hand. John was able to get up before me because his back wasn’t crooked like mine was from sleeping on a crummy mattress. Father Peck handed a chalice to Father Graham, who’d come up to the altar to help serve communion, and motioned for John to go with Father Graham. Father Peck waited for me to remove a gold plate from the offertory table before telling me to follow him down to the center aisle.
The lines of people forming to receive Communion stretched to the back of the church. The men looked uncomfortable in dress clothes they wore only on Sundays. The women were all wearing hats or kerchiefs pinned to their heads. During Communion it was my job to hold the plate under the chins of the people so the host wouldn’t fall to the floor if Father Peck had trouble putting it on someone’s tongue. When I first became an altar boy the coating on some of the old people’s tongues used to make me sick to my stomach After that, I swore off looking at anyone’s tongue, and I’d been fine ever since.
My mind couldn’t help but drift a little as Father Peck gave out the hosts. I wondered if the old man had saved me any of the pepperoni and eggs he’d fried for breakfast. When I looked at the scaffolding above me, I wondered why the Pope couldn’t swing us a loan so we could finish painting the church. Despite those occasional lapses, I did a pretty good job of bringing my attention back to what I was supposed to be doing until I noticed a girl I’d never seen before coming towards me. She looked about fourteen, with black curls peeking out from under a white hat. She had big sparkly eyes and the calves of a gymnast. I’d sworn off looking at tongues but for her I’d make an exception.
Father’s Graham’s line was empty so he waved people over from our line, including the girl I was looking at. That girl couldn’t possibly be aware of the mistake she was making, being new and all. So I set about telling her all about it in my mind. I reminded her that clothes didn’t always make the man. I was smarter than John, and I had the report cards to prove it. I didn’t want to brag, but I was also Captain of the Safety Patrol. Maybe I could show her my badge sometime.
I was completely absorbed in my conversation until the woman standing in front of me pulled a black veil away from her face. By that time nothing could take me away from thinking about that girl for too long. I went right back to my conversation, wondering if I was desperate enough to lie and tell her I thought John might be gay. I didn’t realize what had happened until Father Peck knelt down to pray over the host that had fallen to the floor. When he got back up, Father Peck shoved the plate I was holding so close to the necks of the rest of the people receiving Communion that I was afraid I might behead one of them if he bumped into my arm.
Mass seemed to take forever to end. When we finally entered the priest’s sacristy, all I wanted to do was figure out a way to sneak out of there.
“John, you light the intention candles by yourself today. Bring me the money you collect when you’re finished.” Father Peck drew a deep breath and rocked on his heels. Mr. Schaefer patted me on the shoulder before following John out of the sacristy.
“Joey, I want you to kneel in front of that Tabernacle for twenty minutes and think about what happened out there.”
After I knelt down, it didn’t take long for my knees and back to ache, but I felt like I deserved it. I was convinced that the muffled voices behind me in the emptying church were all talking about what I’d done. Usually John couldn’t wait to go home after he’d finished lighting candles for all of the people with special intentions. But that morning he was still there when the altar boys serving the next mass arrived. From where I was kneeling on the altar, I could see John acting out the whole incident for them in the sacristy. I didn’t think he got too melodramatic until he had Father Peck getting right in my face like some crazy drill sergeant.
Fingers pointed at me, and then John realized I could see him. There was a big smirk on his face as he closed the sacristy doors. When I turned the other cheek, Mr. Mike was fidgeting with the brim of his hat outside the priest’s sacristy. From a huge cross hanging high above the altar, Jesus looked down on me, his sad eyes staring straight into my dirty soul, while I promised Him I’d never daydream again.
Joe's work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories Magazine, Sub-Lit and The Shine Journals, The Northville, Chaffey and Superstition Reviews, Word Catalyst, BAP Quarterly, and The Wilderness House Literary Review. He has also received the Toni Libro award for Outstanding Masters Thesis from Rowan University.