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Joseph Biancalana

The Altar Boys


    A breeze billowing the yellow curtain inward brings sunlight and mild air into the bedroom. Tony shuts the alarm, throws off the sheet, and enjoys the cool scent of dew laden grass. He’s up early to be an altar boy at six-thirty mass. A junior in high school, Tony is the oldest altar boy. He likes early mass, the quiet, the fresh air, the feeling of a new day. He likes talking with Father Brent, who often says the early mass.
     Showered and dressed, he goes into the kitchen. When he does early mass, he has to have breakfast with his father. His father, a large, strongly built man with thick arms and big callused hands, stands at the stove stirring oatmeal. His salt-and-pepper hair is cut short. His olive-green uniform has his name, Sam, sown in red above the shirt pocket. Tony, when he was younger, feared his father, the way his face got red and his voice got loud and his big fist came crashing down on table or counter when he lost his temper and banged or threw things often breaking them. Now Tony also hates him. The back door is open. He goes over to the welcome sunlight and cool air coming through the aluminum screen. Dew glistens the grass. A crow perches on a branch of the poplar tree.
     “The oatmeal’s almost done. Want a soft-boiled egg?”
     Tony sits at the wooden table and eats his half grapefruit. His father dollops oatmeal into Tony’s bowl and pours the rest into his own. Tony feels the rising warmth and savors the wholesome smell. He adds a little butter and brown sugar.
     His father eats hunched over his grapefruit, holding his spoon in his fist like a wrench. He keeps his head turned, his eyes on the TV at the end of the green Formica counter. He gobbles his grapefruit, pushes it aside, and pulls his oatmeal in front of him. His uniform gives off a faint odor of oil and grease and sweat. A woman on TV says the workweek is starting hot and humid, typical for August in the Chicago area, with hot, moist air from the Gulf. 
     Tony cracks his egg in two and spoons it into his cup.  He dunks pieces of buttered toast in his egg. It tastes wonderful. 
     Finished, Tony stands up. “I’ve got to get going.” 
     “Who’s the priest?’
     “Father Brent.”
     His father snorts a laugh. “That pathetic wuss? He’s totally useless. But you do a good job. I don’t want to hear my son messed up.” 
     “I’ll try.”
     “Try? Don’t just try. Even losers try.”
     The morning startles Tony with its beauty. Sunlight flickers among the rustling leaves of the huge poplar tree. The crow has gone.  His mother’s roses – crimson and pink and yellow and white—along the redwood side of the garage enjoy the morning sun. Twittering sparrows fly from garage to poplar tree to the thick bushes along the boundary with the Malones. He wipes dew from the seat of his bicycle. His tires press the pebbly gravel of the drive. The church is over a mile away. He rides slowly through quiet suburban streets and soft summer air. Birds singing make the only sound. Houses – some ranches like his own but mostly split levels, bi-levels, and old red-brick bungalows – sleep, their eyes closed.
     Tony is an unusual altar boy and not only because of his age. He doesn’t believe the catechism and doesn’t like the Catholic Church. For years he went along accepting church doctrine and bible stories and stories about saints without thinking about them. He became an altar boy and performing the ceremony of the mass was exciting. A couple of years ago, he began to have questions and doubts. How did the incarnation work? Did Jesus have God genes? And resurrection. What age would he be when he was resurrected? Transubstantiation. That required the host to have a substance separate from its attributes. Tony couldn’t swallow that. He realized he didn’t believe and for months he didn’t want to not believe. If God didn’t exist, what was the point of anything?  The more he tried to figure things out the worse it got. He went through glum and depressing days. He endured nights of troubled sleep. Darkness circled his eyes. 
    One morning at early mass, hearing Father Brent chant in his rich, musical voice,
     “… ‘Justice and Peace shall kiss / Truth shall spring out of the earth…,’”he felt a delicious power flow through the words into him, opening his eyes. Yes! Truth is of the earth and of the body. He sensed energy streaming through all things and he and everything were alive and beautiful. Church doctrines were ridiculous ropes entangling him in guilt and fear for the benefit of priests. When Father Brent raised the host Tony wanted to laugh and shout with joy. A brilliant world vivid with life was open to him if he had the humility and strength and courage and love to welcome it. He didn’t need a god. He could dwell with knowledge and beauty and pain and love knowing he was mortal. He likes to read history, philosophy, literature, books suggested by his teachers and easily found in the town library. His reading has enriched the insight of his radiant moment.
     His loss of faith doesn’t make him want to stop being an altar boy. He likes the ritual, the strange ceremony, however meaningless. And he likes to perform his part precisely. It’s an art, like being in a play. He takes pride in doing it well. Besides, he likes talking with Father Brent.
     The one-story church with its institutional windows and flat roof looks exactly like the grammar school running perpendicular to its main entrance. Tony leans his bike against the wall by the side door. Inside, it’s cool and dark and smells of incense and candles and flowers. To the left of the altar, a Virgin Mary stands on another altar behind vases of red and white roses. She wears a white gown with a blue mantle and headscarf. On the other side, Saint Joseph stands on an altar behind vases of red and white peonies. He wears a brown robe. Lilies grow in large flowerpots flanking the altar. Long spears of white and pink gladioli stretch upward towards the large crucifix. Between the vases of gladioli, a gold tabernacle. 
     A few people scattered among the pews wait for the mass to begin. Some old men and women, some men in work uniforms like Tony’s father, some men in business suits, and some women who looked like they were also dressed for work. The people who come to early mass fascinate Tony. Maybe their belief somehow helps ennoble their lives. Maybe early masses are like beads of a rosary in time, or an archipelago of meaningful moments through the hours and days. Maybe mass interrupts their loneliness and helps them endure their lives. He half admires and half pities the regulars at early mass, but doesn’t understand them.
     He enters the altar boy sacristy to the left of the Virgin. He likes its smell of incense and candles. Tall closets of dark wood line the walls of the small room. He walks down the hall behind the altar to the priest sacristy. He knocks on the jamb of the open door. Here, too, tall closets of dark wood line the walls except where there are chests of drawers the tops of which are table high. It has the same sacristy smell. Father Brent, sitting at a little table by the window, looks up from his breviary. He’s in his fifties, well-groomed graying brown hair, clean-shaven with cheeks red as if he just came in from a cold wind. He has blue-gray, kind, inquisitive eyes. He asks after Tony’s mother. They talk about the chances of the Cubs winning the pennant.
     “I have a project for you,” Father Brent says.
     “There’s a new altar boy today. Peter Russell. Know him?”
     “He’s not altogether new. He’s done two weeks of early mass with Father Maher. He didn’t do well. He sounds like a klutz. There’s nothing wrong with being a klutz, but they don’t make great altar boys. We’ve agreed to give him another chance. Father Maher thinks, goodness knows why, I can help him. He might find it easier to listen to another altar boy close to his age. Will you coach him?”
     “Sure. How old is he?”
     “Fifth or sixth grade, I think. He told Father Maher he wants to be an altar boy because he wants to be a priest, says he might have a vocation.”
     “At that age, who knows? No reason not to humor him.” 
     Someone knocks. It’s a short, thin boy with well-groomed black hair, black eyebrows over bright blue eyes, and a pale, freckled face. Tony takes in the crisp white button-down shirt, the sharply creased dark blue pants with cuffs, and the shiny black wingtips that look too big for his feet. What in the world?  Who is this? 
     Peter indeed makes mistakes. He sometimes moves in the wrong direction as if he doesn’t know right from left. Once he almost runs into Father Brent, who jukes him with an impressive swerve. He sometimes mumbles responses too early, cutting off Father Brent, who feels he has to repeat what he has just said, or he comes in too late and continues solo in the silence, mumbling. When he pours wine and water into the chalice held by Father Brent, his hands shake and he drops the cruet of water. Father Brent skips back to avoid getting wet. Tony makes himself not laugh. Peter shakes the altar bells too early, then again at the right times, and then yet again. Tony doesn’t mind: he likes the sound. After mass, in the priest’s sacristy, Peter, almost in tears, starts to run to the other sacristy.
     “Peter!” Father Brent says. 
     Peter stops.
     “Peter, I would like to talk with you for a moment.” 
     Tony leaves. In the other sacristy he hangs up his surplice and cassock in the appropriate closets and waits. Peter, holding back tears, comes into the sacristy.
     “What’s up?” 
     “Father Brent said that if I don’t do better, I can’t be an altar boy.”
     Tony doesn’t get this desperate need to be a goddamn altar boy. What’s the matter with this kid?
     “You know,” Peter says, “I’m doing this to see if I have a vocation and I make a mess of things it must mean that I don’t have a vocation and…”
     “Why on earth do you want a vocation? You know, Protestants used to think everyone had a vocation and should have the liberty to pursue their vocation, their trade or profession. There’s no such thing as a vocation. It’s a cheap illusion to make you think your everyday life is special.”
     Tony gladly watches Peter almost wince with a hurt and troubled look on his face.
     “Anyway, you’re problem is you’re too nervous. Let’s go outside.”
     Tony goes outside and waits for Peter. The air is fresh and mild. Peter comes out and the boys walk their bikes down the street behind the church. A slight breeze rustles the leaves of the parkway trees. Flowers grow along the front of some of the houses – mums and asters and roses.
     “You’re too intense. Like with the water and wine.” Peter groans. “Your hand was shaking. Why?  You pour milk on cereal or Coke into a glass, don’t you? Your hand doesn’t shake then, does it?”
     “But the water and wine will be the blood of Christ.”
     “You can’t think about the goddamn blood of Christ. They’re water and wine.”
     Peter stops, making Tony stop and turn towards him.
     “They are the blood of Christ.”
     “Maybe on the inside, but on the outside they’re water and wine. Stay on the surface. If you don’t spill the outside, you won’t spill the inside.”
     The boys start walking again.
     “And with the responses you come in either too early or too late and you garble them.”
     “You don’t have to rub it in.”
     “I’m not trying to rub it in,” Tony says, although that’s exactly what he’s doing. “Here, too, you have to stay on the outside.  Don’t think about what the words mean, focus on getting the sounds and timing right.”
     “How can I not think of what the words mean?”
     “You don’t think about walking. You ride your bike. You don’t think about how to do that.”
     “But riding bikes and walking don’t mean anything.”
     “But you have to pretend the words don’t mean anything.”
     At the end of the second block the boys stop for a car on the cross street. The noise of the car makes Tony realize how quiet everything is.
     “Don’t focus on the meaning. Focus on getting the words right and work on your timing. You get the sounds right, the rest will follow. You get in your own way. It could be you believe too much.”
     “How can someone believe too much?”
     “By worrying so much you psyche yourself out.” 
     “Yeah, maybe.”
     “You have to remember not to try too hard. Like batting, you can get so self-conscious that you never hit the ball.”
     “It’s not baseball.”
     “All I’m saying is treat it as a game.” 
     “But it’s not a game.”
     Tony stops, making Peter stop and look at him.
     “If treating it as a game helps you to do it right, shouldn’t you treat it as a game?”
     “Yes, maybe, I don’t know.” 
     They reach Madison and stop and get on their bikes. Tony will go down Madison. Peter will continue on to Cayuga.
     “Don’t worry so much.”
     “That’s what my mom says.”
     Riding home, Tony wonders about Peter. Full of his little pompous pious self, he’s more solemn, more intense, more earnest, more devout than even Father Brent. Tony leans his bike against the back porch. The dew is gone, the early morning breeze has vanished, and the large leaves of the poplar tree hang motionless. It’s going to be a hot and humid day. 
     His mother, in sleeveless white blouse, dark blue shorts, and sandals, sits at the kitchen table with coffee and cigarettes, reading The Tribune. She wears her brown hair in a ponytail and smiles at him with warm brown eyes.
     “How’d it go?”
     “Okay. I’m hungry.”
     “Go and change.  You have to wear those clothes tomorrow.”
     He goes to his room and changes into shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers. In the kitchen, he dumps Cheerios into a bowl and adds milk.
     “Who said mass?”
     “Father Brent.”
     “He’s good.”
     “I like him. The other altar boy was Peter Russell.”
     “Pam Russell’s son?”
     “Pam said her son Peter wants to be an altar boy.” 
     “He made a mess of everything. Even the bells.”
     His mother lights a cigarette. “Pam worries about him.” She exhales smoke. “She says he’s too serious, too hard on himself.” She puts the match in the ashtray.
     “Sounds like him.”
     Tony bikes to the Jewel in the center of town, where he works for the summer as a checkout clerk. 
    The following morning Tony’s father stands at the stove making oatmeal – he has the same breakfast every morning. Tony watches the backyard through the aluminum screen. The crow isn’t in the poplar tree. The flowers along the border with the Malones look exhausted. He eats his grapefruit and starts on his oatmeal. A man on TV talks about Trump’s re-election campaign. At the mention of Trump, his father explodes into a rant about Hilary and socialism and Benghazi. He aims his angry harangue at Tony. Tony tries to look like he’s taking his father seriously. He crams his mouth with oatmeal lest he say something or laugh. As fast as he can, he’s out the door.
     “’You saw,” Father Brent says. “He has difficulties.”
     “He’s too nervous, too up tight. I’m working with him on that.”
     “Good. … Ever heard of Saint Hyacinth of Caesarea? I was just reading about him.”

     From time to time, Father Brent comes up with bits of church history or the life of a saint. Tony likes to listen to Father Brent’s stories about saints. He thinks they are bizarre in two ways. The events narrated are bizarre. And it’s bizarre that anyone would think they were true.
     “Who’s he?”
     “A kid in the first century. Died when he was twelve. Assistant to Emperor Trajan’s chamberlain. His parents must have had clout.”
     Peter knocks quietly and enters the sacristy.
     “Peter, hi. I’m talking about Saint Hyacinth of Caesarea. He was an assistant to the Emperor Trajan’s chamberlain. That puts him roughly at the end of the first century. His job was to assist in sacrifices to the Roman gods. But he wouldn’t eat the ritual food.”  Tony thinks ritual food sounds a lot like communion. “His not eating is a tell he’s Christian. They put him in prison and that’s all they serve him. He doesn’t eat and starves to death.”
     “A martyr?” Tony says.
     “Yes, a martyr. All the early saints were martyrs. Dying at age twelve’s not a good life. Saints don’t have good lives.”
     “How’s that?”
     “Saints have their eyes on the eternal. They’re willing to sacrifice a good life here on earth for eternal life.”
     To Tony, they sound crazy. There’s definitely something wrong with a twelve-year-old kid who starves himself to death. “I don’t want to be a saint,” he says.
     “That’s not something you need worry about,” Father Brent says. Tony smiles. “Peter, ready for another mass?”
      “I hope so, Father. I’ll try.”
     Even losers try. God, his father’s a jerk, but this Peter’s pathetic.
     “Good,” Father Brent says.
     Walking to the other sacristy with Tony, Peter says, “That stuff’s cool.”
     “Yes, too bad it probably isn’t true.”
     “But Father Brent…
     “He was telling us the accepted fairy tale. Now, remember. Lighten up. Stay on the outside of things.”
     Peter’s performance shows little improvement. He doesn’t drop a cruet because they don’t let him near one. He still makes mistakes in his movements. The timing of his responses is still not right. Tony works the bells. Peter helps with communion. About twelve persons come up to the communion rail. At first, Peter leads Father Brent, walking backward holding the patten under the chin of the communicant. Peter doesn’t move fast enough. Father Brent has to nudge him. Father Brent shifts Peter to follow him. Peter either walks too fast and runs into Father Brent or makes Father Brent wait by walking too slowly. 
     After mass the boys walk their bikes down the street behind the church. It’s already warmer. It’s going to be another hot day.
     “Today wasn’t much better,” Tony says.
     “If I can’t do this, it must mean I can’t become a priest.”
     The pious whining irks Tony. “Why on earth would you want to become a goddamn priest? You know the church is pretty awful.”
     “What? No.”
     “It’s not democratic, in fact it fostered fascism in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. People didn’t kill other people because of their ideas until Catholics came along, created heretics, and massacred them. They have strange ideas about women. Too many priests have a taste for little boys and are protected by their bishops. And when they are caught, the Church hides assets so it doesn’t have to pay the victims. You want to join that outfit?”
     Peter looks as if he might cry. Tony’s glad. He’s getting through to him.
     The next morning when Tony enters the kitchen his father is waiting for water to boil. His mother left a mixing bowl on the counter. “What the fuck is this doing here?” his father says, picks up the ceramic bowl, and hurls it against the wall. It makes a dent in the shiny white plaster, bounces downward, hits the tile floor, shatters. He eats his breakfast as if nothing happened. Tony hurries out the door.
     The boys are dressed for mass. Tony says, “Remember. It’s a game. It’s a play and you’re only playing a part. You can do it.”
     Peter’s responses and his movements are better, but helping with communion his hand shakes and he taps the throat of an old lady, who had put out her tongue to receive the host, with the edge of the paten. She coughs and looks alarmed. At the next communicant, his hand shakes so much he drops the paten. When he goes to pick it up, he kicks it and it slides away. He runs and picks it up and rushes back to where Father Brent is waiting for him. His cheeks are red, his eyes watery. 
     After mass, Father Brent says, “Peter, try not to decapitate the communicants.”
     “Yes, Father. Sorry, Father.”
     “Lighten up a little.”
     “Yes, Father. I’ll try, Father.”
     The boys are walking their bikes after mass.
     “At night when I go to bed, I pray that I’ll do the mass right,” Peter says, almost crying.
     Tony can’t stand the whimpering religiosity. And every day he shows up in those ridiculous black wing-tips. “Literally?” he says.       “You pray?”
     “I ask God to help me do better.”
     “That’s insane. Prayers are useless. You should know by now there’s nobody home. Or do you still believe in Santa Claus?” 
     “What’s the matter with you? You’re telling me not to believe. You don’t believe, do you?
     Tony stops and looks at Peter. “No, I guess not.” 
     “How can you be an altar boy?”
     “It’s fun, and the words and symbols and ceremonies are beautiful, I like lighting the candles, I like the churchy smell, especially in the sacristies, the excerpts from the Bible the saint stories are interesting, and I like talking with Father Brent.”
     “I couldn’t do that. If I didn’t believe I don’t know what I’d do.”
     “You’d get a real life,” Tony thinks, but he says, “You’d do just fine. You’d enjoy your life.”
     Thursday, shards of the ceramic bowl are on the floor where it fell. Remembering his parents’ fight last night, Tony eats and leaves as fast as he can. 
     Father Brent wants the boys to learn something about the liturgical year. The key date is Easter. The Council of Nicaea in 325 fixed Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox. So, Tony thinks, it’s a spring festival. No wonder vestments after Easter are green.  Once you have Easter in place, Father Brent explains, you can arrange the ordinary time between the Sunday after Epiphany and Ash Wednesday and the time between Easter and Advent. Tony thinks the point is to fill up and give meaning to empty days, weeks, months.
     The boys go to their sacristy to dress for mass.  
     “I think I’m beginning to understand what you mean by treating it as a game, a performance,” Peter says.
     “The ceremonies and the words are beautiful in themselves without any meaning. It’s a beautiful game.”
     “There you go.”
     Peter has all the movements down and makes only a few mistakes with the responses.  He does communion well. After mass Father Brent tells him he’s doing much better. Only he should slow down a little.  Sometimes he looks like he’s rounding second base. 
     In their sacristy, Peter says, “I liked that stuff about the liturgical year.”
     “It’s based on Easter when a dead god came back. A zombie god. Myths about dying gods coming back were a dime a dozen. Christians added something extra, human sacrifice and some cannibalism with that eat my body, drink my blood stuff.”
     “You’re incredible. You’re really not a believer. What do you believe in?”
     Tony has to stop and think. He hangs up his cassock and turns to Peter. “I guess I don’t believe in anything.  I believe some things are true, like evolution.”
     “So you believe in science?”
     Tony pauses. Peter hangs his cassock next to Tony’s.
     “I don’t believe in science. But what science says has a very good chance of being true.”
     The boys go outside to sunlight, fresh air, and the smell of cut grass. As they walk their bikes, Peter says, “About your not believing, does Father Brent know?”
     “I don’t think so. It doesn’t hurt anyone.”
     “If he knew, would he let you be an altar boy?”
     They start walking again.
     “Hard to say.”
     His mother is sitting at the kitchen table with coffee, cigarettes, and newspaper. Tony changes and eats his Cheerios
     “Peter’s mother at bridge last night said Peter goes on about how much you’re helping him as an altar boy. Pam wants to thank you. She’s relieved Peter’s doing better and isn’t so stressed out.”
     “I didn’t do anything. He’s worked at it, that’s all.”
     “Well, whatever you did or didn’t do, you’ve got a friend for life in Peter. You’re his idol.” Tony smiles.
     Friday, the shards are still on the floor. Tony skips breakfast. He tells his father he has to meet with Father Brent. Going out the back door, he sees a crow, huge and black, in the poplar tree. He watches the beautiful bird. After a while the crow takes off. Tony watches until it’s out of sight.
     He goes into the priest sacristy to chat with Father Brent. 
     “Peter is doing much better,” Father Brent says. “I think that’s your good influence. I want to thank you for helping him.”
     “I really didn’t help him.”
     Before mass in the altar boy sacristy, Peter says, “Things feel different.”
     “Different good or different bad.”
     “Not good or bad. Just different. Somehow more alive.”
     When they had their cassocks and surplices on, Tony says, “Remember. It’s a show, that’s all it is, and you can go through the motions and words as well as anybody.”
     Peter performs very well, not perfectly, but very well. After mass Father Brent says he wants to talk with him. Peter comes smiling into the altar boy sacristy.
     “So what did he say?”
     “He said I’m an altar boy.”
     “That’s great! You did it!”
     “It’s your helping me. Things feel different now. I can’t describe it. It’s as if they lost some of their meaning.” 
     “Maybe they mean in a different way.”
     “Maybe. They feel somehow light.” 
     “That’s good, isn’t it?”
     On the way home Tony sees a paunchy, almost bald guy in a turquoise, yellow, and orange Hawaiian shirt, bright red shorts, and shiny brown loafers. He has a cigar in the side of his mouth and a garden hose in his hand. He’s spraying water on his lawn and the flowers along the front of his house, moving the hose from side to side and up and down. He looks like he’s having a ball.
     His mother at the kitchen table greets him. 
     “How did Peter do?”
     “Great. He’s an altar boy.”
     “That’s good. Pam’ll be happy for him.”
     “I want to talk to you,” Tony says.
     “Get changed and come back.”
     While he’s eating his Cheerios, he says he’s decided to stop being an altar boy.
     “I treat it as a game and maybe I shouldn’t. I mean, if I can’t take it in the way it was meant to be taken, I shouldn’t do it. Anyway, I’m too old to be an altar boy.”
     “That’s up to you.”
     He gets on his bike and heads for the store. He realizes he has left the house early. He has time to kill. He bikes to the wealthy neighborhood around the library and the college. Feeling free, he rides fast and likes the wind against his body. He rides down quiet, cool streets under the arches of huge elms. Working his leg muscles, he feels new life in his veins. The houses are large and old, beautiful and quiet with no one in them yelling or throwing bowls. The lawns are wide, deep, and green. Roses and flowers Tony doesn’t recognize are all over the place. How simple and beautiful life can be. As he rides to his job at the store, he knows he will never die.

     One day about a week later, Peter’s sister comes into the kitchen for breakfast at the usual time. 
     Pam says, “Have you seen Peter?”
     “No. He’s always a little late.”
     Pam goes to the foot of the stairs and calls him. Silence. She climbs the stairs.  He’s not in his room, not in the bathroom. She comes downstairs. He’s not watching TV or playing a video game in the family room, not in the living room. She tries the half-bath. No. She goes out onto the closed-in porch. No. She goes to the garage not because she thinks he’s there but because she thinks she should look in every possible place. Entering the garage, she sees shiny black wingtips dangling in the air. Hearing Pam’s wild shrieking, a neighbor calls the police. Peter’s note to mom and dad says he’s sorry if he hurts them, but he has lost his faith. Without his faith, nothing means anything and everything seems empty and meaningless and he can’t live that way. 



Jeffrey Alfier Matin_Bleu.jpeg
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