Volume 5
An Online Literary Magazine
March 31, 2011


Stuck in the Sacristy


Dave Buchanan


Original art by Pam Aloisa, a professor in the Department of English and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy.


was an altar boy the day my mother first fed the body of Christ to the parish of St. Rose of Lima. I wanted to reach out and tell her it was no big deal and maybe even wipe the perspiration off her upper lip. But it was a big deal for her. “Most of these people,” she said that morning at breakfast, “haven’t taken communion from anyone but Father O’Borny their whole lives.”


I was glad that my friend Tim was the one assigned to my mom when it came time to follow her hand and wafer with the paten. It was an easy job; the paten, a gleaming brass disc on a stick, was always underneath the host in case any dust or holy particles fell. After communion, Father would wipe the paten into his chalice and drink it away. Jorge, the other altar boy, was assigned to help Father, and I was left with the coveted nothing-to-do job. I just had to stand back and hold onto the incense burner. It was a job I’d been waiting for ever since my cousin said I could get a buzz if I breathed in enough incense smoke. Most of the congregation couldn’t see me, so I breathed in deep, waiting for the buzz to come.


Communion came first though, and my mother dealt out the little wafers like a pro. Her hands shook slightly, and from the side it seemed her eyes were a little watery. She whispered “the body of Christ” over and over. Through the incense smoke I could see that she was handing out those little yeast-less snacks as well as any priest.


Everyone had a different style. When I wasn’t serving mass, I was a hand-taker. I had been using the same choreographed steps since my first communion. Extend hands, one cupping the other—accept host—say Amen—side step. That was easy. But the next part was tricky—you couldn’t hold up the line—so in one fluid movement, facing the altar, the bottom hand moved around and picked up the host between finger and thumb, like picking lint from a shirt, slid the host into mouth, and made a sign of the cross. Finished, I could then head for my seat.


“Never chew Jesus,” my mother reminded us. And so, instead, Jesus got stuck to the roof our mouths for the rest of the mass. She told us to moisten it first to let it dissolve on our tongues. But I never mastered the trick and instead I always plastered it to the top of my mouth. And there, Jesus became the most intense temptation I would know until Steph Watson asked me to take her shirt off during my freshman year. The urge to reach up and scrape Jesus with my fingernail from my palate was brutal. Later, at a bigger church that also offered wine with communion, I discovered why everyone stopped for wine: it made a very useful mouthwash.


Hand-takers, like me, were the minority. Most were tongue-takers. From my smoke shrouded corner, I watched them all take the body of Christ, tongue only, from my mother on her first day as Eucharistic minister. Delbert McIntosh, a man who worked in the grocery store meat-room, was one of the first. He stepped up, mouth open, head thrown back, tongue flat, white slivers of dried saliva strung from top lip to bottom. I felt a pang of sympathy for Mom then; how could she keep from touching that cracked and multi-colored tongue? But she managed to daintily poke the host onto his tongue, and Mr. McIntosh stepped aside, chewing Jesus like a cud.


A girl in the grade below me, followed by her beautiful, older sister, was next. She and her sister were both tongue-takers, both barely opening their mouths. Mom slipped in the little wafer like a coin into an arcade game, and they both turned and left, eyes to the ground.


They kept coming, and Mom adapted to every different technique. I knew them all. Teachers, parents, mowers of yards, names on my paper route—I had grown up with these faces. My father, a football coach and unconverted Baptist, sat in the front pew with my brothers. My little brother, at five years old, loved the sign of peace ritual and I could hear him whispering “peace be with you” and shaking everyone’s hand as they passed the front pew. He had started doing that a few weeks earlier and everyone played along. It was cute. My older brother’s eyes followed the rear of every passing girl. I envied him and imagined myself invisible and breathed smoke, still waiting for the promised buzz.


I just had to stand back and hold onto the incense burner. It was a job I’d been waiting for ever since my cousin said I could get a buzz if I breathed in enough incense smoke.


ext in line were Mrs. Wellington, my math teacher, then Tim’s mom, and then Miss Peacock. Her name was Miss Peacock, but kids called her the Cat Lady because she had cats and no husband. She had a dirt yard, but she’d watch from the window with her cats and chase us to the sidewalk if we cut the corner and set one foot on her hallowed dirt.


In church, she was a well-known figure. Although no one looked or whispered, when she came forward for communion, you could feel the whole congregation tense a little. Even though we were all comfortable with Miss Peacock, everyone held their breath a little until she tiptoed back to her seat.


She cried in church. Always. She sobbed through rosaries, through Stations of the Cross, and through every confession, speaking loud enough in the confessional that we all wondered why her sins were anything to cry about. She cried when she sang, and when she lit candles. And she cried the most when she took communion. It was a noiseless cry, one of wet sniffing and wet cheeks; but we were all used to it. We accepted her tears, and we even forgot about them until some visiting Catholic happened to be in church on Fourth of July weekend or Christmas. Then, we’d all feel a collective embarrassment, and we’d all avoid the questioning eyes of whatever stranger happened to be at mass.


The Cat Lady suffered palsy, making her mouth a moving target. She was a tongue-taker, and so over the years Father had devised the technique of stepping down, cradling her head against his chest, and feeding her the host like he was shoving a horse pill into her mouth. Miss Peacock’s eyes would scan the church ceiling, tears streaking her cheeks, and Father would administer the host like medicine, stand her up and send her on her way. Eventually, even this became an accepted ritual of the mass for the people of St. Rose of Lima.


That day though, Miss Peacock was in my mother’s line. From within my cloud of smoke, I was sure Father would notice too and step in. But as she shuffled forward, lips moving to a silent, tearful prayer, he made no move to help. When she made it to the front, the Cat Lady experimented with a new technique; she closed her eyes and opened her wavering maw. Upper lip sweating profusely now, my mother offered the host and took careful aim. What technique would she use? Mom extended her hand slowly, following the circling jaw, her face frowning in concentration, her own head and hand moving in synch with Miss Peacock’s. It was a dance, soft and gentle.


The body of Christ didn’t stand a chance. Mom’s timing was off. The Cat Lady’s jaw bumped my mother’s fingers, and Jesus fell to the floor. Mom gasped in a way that only mothers can—a gasp I heard when my little brother ran a motorbike into the side of the house, a gasp I heard when my father fell off a step ladder while cutting some branches with a chainsaw, a gasp I heard when my sister told her she was pregnant—and everything stopped.


As if he had done this a thousand times, Father simply stepped down between Miss Peacock, who was still waiting with clenched eyes, and my mother, whose tight control on her own bearing was quickly unraveling. With the back of her hand she pushed back perspiration-dampened hair from her face and took a trembling breath. Father looked like a football referee, bending at the waist, peering to see if it landed heads or tails. He picked up the host, turned it over like he had just found a penny on the sidewalk, ate it, stepped back into place, and gestured for the next communicant in his line to step forward.


Meanwhile, the Cat Lady did not open her eyes; surely she was lost in a heaven full of cats and jailed paperboys. And now, of course, everyone watched as Mom took a deep breath, grasped another host and successfully dropped it into Miss Peacock’s wet mouth. We all exhaled together and the Cat Lady sobbed her way back to her seat. Everyone relaxed.


Except for Tim, the altar boy who had missed catching the falling host with his paten. I noticed that he was moving slow with the brass disk. His face showed a fight with some inner emotion. His hand was shaking; his eyes were watering; his lip was white where he was biting down. At first, I thought he was going to cry too. But then he looked at me; we made eye contact, and the laughter he had been swallowing gushed out over my mother’s retreating hand.


It started as just a little snort. And then he choked on it. Such laughter is contagious sometimes, and I sucked air, and getting nothing but a lung full of incense, I choked too. Thankfully, I had a sacristy to duck into where no one would see me laugh, but Tim was caught. He couldn’t leave; he couldn’t even cover his mouth. Right up front, beside my mother’s sweating upper-lip, he could only laugh. And laugh he did, like he was being tickled, like a heavy hand held him down and he couldn’t squirm away. But no one noticed. That is, everyone pretended to not hear. Father frowned, but everyone else just bowed their praying heads lower, staring deeper into the backs of the kneeling parishioners in front. Still holding the smoking incense, I noticed my father’s jaw clench slightly; my older brother’s eyes went vacant as he forced himself to keep his head still. I couldn’t see Tim’s mother, but I could feel her embarrassment spreading over the church like a blanket, and still Tim couldn’t stop.


But my little brother heard. He stopped his whispered Peace Be With You’s and thought it was funny too. And it was funny. Around him was every person he had ever known in mock seriousness while his brother’s friend was crying with laughter, dressed in a white blouse over a long red dress. The Cat Lady he knew from when she chased him and his brothers from her yard after poorly thrown newspapers landed in bushes. So Tommy the five year-old laughed too. My father picked him up and took him out, and eventually Tim’s face smoothed out, his fit of laughter passed, and we finished mass.


Actually, they finished mass. I was stuck in the sacristy for good. The buzz finally arrived while I was out of view among extra candles and candle lighters. I had inhaled incense until my head lightened, and I threw up, Jesus and cornflakes, into a box of old Christmas decorations on the day my mother first fed us the body of Christ.


Dave Buchanan, an Air Force pilot, speechwriter, and English teacher, graduated from the United States Air Force Academy and the University of Kansas with degrees in English. He writes about growing up in a small town and growing old in the military. His short fiction has been published in War, Literature, and the Arts.


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