To become an altar boy he had to satisfy a list of tasks and conditions; it was like earning a merit badge. Gary wished it was more like Boy Scouts, with ranks laid out within the altar boy organization that he could steadily ascend until he reached the summit and stood on the altar, radiating power and goodness. But there were no ranks; once he became an altar boy he would be lumped in with Scott Hartman, who couldn’t do long division. Still, it would be cool to be an altar boy, especially on Sunday at 11:00 mass when the church was full and everybody was watching.
No ranks, but the nuns devised a contest to lure the boys in and motivate them.
“Boys, you will all compete for a wonderful prize that will be awarded in May.” Sister Charles Marie patrolled up and down the long straight aisles of her classroom as she baited her hook. She paused next to Billy Castro’s desk, which was a few inches out of line, gave him a stern look and hip-checked it into place. “You will receive points for every mass you serve, and whichever boy receives the most points will win the prize.” Sister’s eyes sparkled darkly as she envisioned this prize.
“Now, we sometimes have trouble finding boys who are willing to serve the 6 AM weekday mass. So any boy who serves that mass will receive bonus points.”
Bonus points! When he heard this Gary got excited. He only lived two blocks from church. He could serve those masses easily. He would rack up bonus points. He could win that prize, probably a day off from school or something.
He could see no downside to being an altar boy. He wouldn’t mind getting up early if he had to, not that he ever did. He himself usually attended the 5:00 PM mass on Sunday, because he could rarely pull himself out of bed before noon. That bad habit had cost him dearly last year during Super Bowl I. Gary was a passionate Chiefs fan; for weeks that January he had lived and breathed “Super Bowl,” this new, magnificent, towering, unbelievable game in which his beloved Chiefs, plucky underdogs, would go up against the dreaded behemoth, the Green Bay Packers. He prayed daily for victory. However, on Super Bowl Sunday Gary slept in once again. The game began at 3:00, and he was glued to the screen until halftime, when his Chiefs were only trailing 14-10. He knew they could come back, that Dawson would find Taylor in the end zone and win the game. But his mother spoke up at 4:45, right when halftime was ending.
“You need to go to church, buster.”
“Mom! Please! I can’t miss the rest of this game!”
“You should have thought of that this morning. There were three masses you could have gone to this morning and you slept through all of them. It’s Sunday. You cannot miss mass. It’s a mortal sin.”
“It’s a mortal sin. Get going.”
He didn’t want to go to hell, so he dragged himself to church, but he was even less attentive than usual and raced home when the ordeal was over to discover that his Chiefs had been slaughtered. That was a bad day. But he had learned his lesson and he knew, without question, that he would attend 11:00 mass the next time the Chiefs were in the Super Bowl. Getting up early for mass wasn’t that big a deal.
Plus, he knew from his brothers that he could get actual money for serving weddings and funerals—more money for weddings, naturally, but more competition. Gary would be happy to serve funerals if there were a few bucks in it. Dead people did not freak him out. And there was prestige to being an altar boy. They were up there on the altar next to the priest in his bright vestments, their faces solemn, filled with self-importance, essential players in all that pageantry.
Plus, he would be serving Christ. Gary loved God. His mom loved God, all the nuns and priests loved God, loving God was easy to do. God had been generous and kind to him; he owed God something. He signed up.
The most intimidating requirement was memorizing some Latin prayers. This was the Holy Roman Catholic Church, and the mass was said in magnificent and mysterious Latin. Things were changing; pronouncements from Vatican II frequently emerged, but in Gary’s parish Latin was still the lingua franca. The priest did the heavy lifting of course, but there were quite a few congregational responses. Gary enjoyed reading these little phrases from the prayerbook when he was in the pews. Underneath the bold type Latin was a phonetic version in subscript (Et coom speeri too too oh). He loved speaking Latin; the dark secret language reverberated with holiness and power.
But altar boys were not allowed to read from prayer books; they had to memorize the responses. Mostly they were short little prayers he had uttered hundreds of times. But not the Confiteor Deo or the Pater Noster. Those suckers were long. And to further winnow out the chaff, the nuns threw in the Ave Maria, which was pretty short but still unnerving.
He studied hard, and on his second test he passed. He and his mother signed the commitment form, and he was an altar boy. He told Sister Charles Marie he was willing to serve 6 AM masses immediately, but she felt he needed a little seasoning with experienced boys before he could take those on. He had to wait a couple weeks before he could be inserted into the rotation, and that made him anxious, because other boys were pulling ahead on the leaderboard—the chart Sister posted each week showing the point totals. But finally he got his chance, his debutante ball: Sunday 10 AM.
He showed up at 9:45, just as the 9:00 mass was ending. Alex Benoit was waiting for him; Alex was supposed to show him the ropes—how to get dressed, light the candles, line up. There were four servers that morning, and a brief power struggle erupted over lighting the candles, which Alex settled by invoking the name of the capo di tutti capi: “Sister Charles Marie told me I got to teach him,” pointing at Gary. “I have to light the candles.” Once that chore was finished they lined up behind the priest in the sanctuary, and soon it was showtime.
There was nothing to it. It was ridiculously easy. That year, in a furniture rearrangement of epic proportions, a Vatican II earthquake, Holy Roman Catholic feng shui, they had moved the altar so that the priest faced the congregation. Two altar boys knelt on each side of the altar, facing the priest; it was quite easy for Gary to scan the crowd and look for his girlfriend, Sue Martel. She didn’t know she was his girlfriend; he could barely bring himself to speak to her. But if she saw him serving mass it would surely light a fire in her, get something going.
His reveries ended when they got to the Confiteor. Gary hadn’t really thought of that prayer since he had recited it for Sister Charles Marie weeks before, and now he discovered he couldn’t remember how it went, and there was no prayer book at hand he could turn to. Luckily the boys bent over and spoke the prayer into the floor, so it was easy for him to mumble his way through. He realized he had to study up before his next mass, nail that prayer down.
But he never did. In a pattern that would plague him all his life, Gary discovered that he loved learning things but not retaining them, unless they were directly useful and necessary for his life, and the Confiteor in Latin wasn’t.
He stumbled out of the gate in his debut, but he had his mind set on winning that prize and he threw himself into his new role, even if he couldn’t quite speak all his lines. He served a mass every Sunday and immediately became the go-to guy for the 6 AM masses. Tom Williamson put up a bit of a fight, but Gary slowly pulled away on the leaderboard.
The Confiteor, though, never stopped torturing him. Hunched over, Gary employed his strategy of faking it by emphasizing the few words he knew and mumbling nonsense into the floor. All those names! Saying that prayer was like a recurring nightmare of drowning. He’d jump in strong and ready, “Confiteor Deo ominpotenti!” and sink like a stone, thrash around, “badoobi Maria doobie doobie,” come up gasping for air, “yadda yadda Petro et Paulo seculorum seculorum doobie dah,” then clutch the mea culpas in the middle like flotsam from a torpedoed ship: “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!” But he’d immediately lose his hold and sink back into the black and frigid deeps. “Doobie dah doobie doo virginia bippity boppity boo.” Eventually his blue body would bob to the surface as the prayer ended and he sputtered out the final recognizable words: “Petrum Palum la di dah Dominum Deum nostrum!”
It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. The same strategy got him through the Pater Noster.
Gary did not feel guilty about this; he was sure God understood how difficult Latin was. And once he saw that his doggerel worked he gave up all efforts to truly memorize the prayers. He was a sincere and serious altar boy, alert to the priest’s every need. He locked in at the ringing of the bells. He held the paten steady under all those chins; not a molecule of Holy Christ ever fell to the ground. He did everything exactly right, with confidence and dignity. Except for that goddamn Latin.
God didn’t care. In fact, God loved him for serving all those 6AM masses. Especially the ones in November, and December, and January, and February. That was when Gary established his dominance and crushed his competitors. When his alarm went off at 5:30, in total blackness, Christ powered him awake. He dressed quickly, combed his hair, and crept out of the dark, silent house where his mother and brothers and sister slumbered on. No breakfast—sometimes he might gobble down some unconsecrated hosts pinched from the tupperware container in the sacristy, but that was from curiosity more than hunger. They weren’t very filling.
He’d hurry down the frozen, crusty blocks to the church and wait outside, stamping his feet in the dark, until Monsignor showed up to unlock the doors. They never spoke; Gary knew what to do. He followed Monsignor into the sacristy and they costumed up. Sometimes another boy would show up, always a different boy, but usually he was on his own, the whole weight of the Mass on his little shoulders. He’d light the candles and take in the crowd—a dozen old women and one old man.
Even in the empty church he got away with his Confiteor ruse. The old people knew the prayers and uttered them devoutly; no one listened to Gary murmur his nonsense into the floor. Monsignor, a few feet away, was practically deaf; if he did hear the boy’s ridiculous patter, he suppressed a smile and forgave him.
The last day of school Sister Charles Marie called him up to the front of class and gave him his prize: a rosary, direct from the Holy Land. And not a particularly masculine one at that. He chucked it into his junk drawer when he got home, checked off one more triumph, and turned to face any new challenges that life might present.
No, he couldn’t speak God’s language; he used trickery to win the contest. Every time he performed that prayer he recognized he was a lazy and fraudulent boy. Nevertheless, God smiled upon him, despite his dodges. He and God were simpatico, and that never changed. For all his life, through all his spiritual wanderings, he and God had an understanding.