and the third part of the waters became
wormwood, and many men died of the
waters, because they were made bitter"-Revelation 8:11
He was next. Brian sat in the pew with the rest of the altar boys and tried to remember his sins. As usual, he couldn't think of anything he had done wrong since confession last Saturday, or at least not anything he wanted to talk about, but he couldn't go in there empty handed. Saying you had no sins meant you thought you were perfect, and that was the worst sin of all. Pride. That was Satan's sin. I wonder how bad a sin it is to make up sins, he thought. Probably about as bad as lying, but a little worse, because you were lying to a priest. That was why he always used lying as one of his sins, just to cover himself for lying about his sins. Brian tried to think of two more, because you had to have at least three. Five would be great, but three was good enough under the circumstances. He could feel the eyes of the nuns bearing down on him, and he tried not to look up.
The red velvet curtain parted slowly, and Matthew Martin came out. He held his left index finger down at his side for a moment, and then quickly folded his hands in front of him again. That was the signal for Father Feely. Father Bennet was two fingers, and Father Callahan was a clenched fist. That was because Father Callahan was the toughest, and going to him was like getting a fist in the gut. Father Callahan was in charge of the altar boys' school, and he had his special favorites in each class. They got away with murder, but Brian wasn't one of them. He got along with Father Callahan well enough, but not well enough to be considered a favorite. Father Feely was easy though. His hearing wasn't too good, and he always gave light penances. Usually Hail Mary's. Brian rose up and walked to the curtain. Inside, it was dark, but not so dark that you couldn't see. He stood, looking down for a moment before he knelt on the little red padded kneeler, because Kevin Thompson had left his gum there once, and Brian got it stuck all over his cassock. Nothing happened to Kevin though, because he was one of Father Callahan's favorites.
The divider slid open, and Brian could see Father Feely's face through the little screen. You weren't supposed to be able to see through it, but Father Feely's whitened face was clearly visible, bending forward with his glasses on the tip of his nose, a lock of silvery yellow hair hanging down over his forehead.
"Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been six days since my last confession, and these are my sins: I've been fighting with my sister", he lied. "I've been neglecting my school work", he lied again. "And I lied."
"I see. Well Brian, you're usually a good boy. Are you sorry for your sins?"
"Then say three Hail Mary's a day until the time of your next confession and ask God for help in your time of need."
"Thank you Father."
Brian pulled the curtain back and walked out. Kevin Thompson was next, so Brian held his left fist down by his side for a moment, and then headed towards the communion rail. He knelt down, smiling as he said his Hail Mary's, because he knew Kevin would be sweating it out for fear of Father Callahan. He wished he could see the look on Kevin's face when he heard Father Feely open the screen.
Brian genuflected and went into the sacristy. He took off his surplice, and stepped carefully out of his long black cassock, making sure not to get any footprints on it. It had taken him a long time to find a cassock that wasn't too short for him, so he took it home every day so it wouldn't disappear. Brian folded it carefully and put it in his gym bag. He stood in front of the mirror, brushing the long blond bangs out of his eyes, and licking his fingers to press his cowlick down. It stayed in place for a moment, then sprang back to life. He stared back at his blue eyes in the mirror. Only an hour until the game, he thought. Well, not really an hour, but it was only an hour before he had to leave for it. Brian tried to wet his cowlick down one more time, and then turned away from the mirror to get his jacket. He put his rosary beads in the right pocket, and then put the jacket on as he walked out the side door.
Out on the street, it was cold. The sun had just gone down behind the projects, and the wind was picking up. The sidewalk was icy, and Brian pulled his collar up and stuck his hands down into the pockets of his jacket. His long thin arms had grown even longer since last season, making the sleeves of his jacket too short. The cold wind hurt his bare wrists and he tried to dig deeper into the pockets. He would be home soon, and he wanted to say the rosary twice before the game.
Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, he began to himself, his long stride stepping powerfully on the words as he walked. The Lord is with thee, the Lord is with me. I wonder if the Lord is with me, he thought. That's faith. All of the saints had faith. Saint Stephen knew that the Lord was with him, that's why he let them throw rocks at him until he died. Brian had read about the lives of the saints when he was in grammar school and his mother had taken him to the library each week with his sister. He would go directly to the young adults section and get a volume of the lives of the saints before looking for other books. This made his mother proud, but not as proud as when he asked her if he could buy his own Bible. Every night before bed, he would read a page, or have his mother read him one. As a result, he always knew the answers in Sunday school, which really wasn't Sunday school since it was held on Saturday mornings. Although Brian knew the answers, he never volunteered them, because he was scared of the others in the class. It was the same in Latin class. All of the altar boys were required to learn Latin before they could serve mass, but Brian's class had only learned half the mass when they were told to forget it all, and it was announced that from that day forward, the mass would be said in English. It had been confusing at first, but eventually, everyone got used to it.
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. The fruit of thy womb, weep not at my tomb, for I'll be with Jesus, he sang to himself. Brian wondered who would weep at his tomb. He tried to picture what his own funeral would be like, but all that came to mind was the image of all the funerals he had served as an altar boy, combined and confused in one huge funeral nightmare. Last year, he was one of four altar boys chosen to serve at the Mayor's funeral. Brian thought back to that day, and remembered watching the cars line up at the cemetery. The line went on and on and the cars kept coming and coming. He thought it would never stop. I hope I have that many cars at mine, he thought.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners. I am a sinner. A sinner who has no sins. Brian walked past the gas station. There was a large black trash barrel with a fire in it in the doorway. Several black men stood in a semi circle around it. Brian nodded at them, and turned his eyes to the pavement in front of him. There were several cars up on blocks with various parts missing. Brian knew nothing about cars. He didn't know what they did to the cars at the gas station, because there was never anyone working on them, or pumping gas, but the cars always changed, so he knew they had to be doing something with them. The garage itself was old and dirty. It had been white at one time, but now, most of the paint had peeled off, and what remained was the color of dirty cement. Brian walked by the garage every day, but he never felt quite right about it. The men always nodded to him, but he was still wary of them. It wasn't that Brian didn't get along with the blacks. He had to. Most of the neighborhood was black, but there were a few that hated Brian. That was because Brian played on the Junior High basketball team, and although the black players dominated the church and city leagues, they were few and far between in the Junior High program. Undisciplined. Street ballplayers. That's what Mr. Barnes said. He had been the coach of the Junior High basketball team for twelve years and in that time, only a few black players had made it onto the team. Instead, they played in the city league, or on church league teams, and when someone played in both leagues like Brian did, there were those that resented it. To make matters worse, Brian had led the league in scoring, and was a regular starter on the Junior High team.
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Brian walked up the front stairs and into the hallway. He had just finished his second rosary. The last three weeks, he had only said one, and they had lost all three games. Eastern Baptist was last years league champion and Brian really wanted to beat them. His team would need the extra rosary. Brian stood at the top of the stairs and got out his key. The three flights had winded him, but it was more the smell of wet newspapers or boiled cabbage that took his breath away. He opened the door and called out, "Hello?"
"Hello. I'm in here." Brian walked through the little kitchen into the living room. His mother sat in her favorite chair, crocheting. She was a smallish woman, but in a deceptive sort of way. Brian knew she was solid and strong for her size though. She worked as a seamstress in a small shop with nine other women on the other side of the city.
"Where's Dad?" Brian asked.
"What about Margie?"
"She's at the library."
"That figures. You know, you shouldn't be sewing on your day off. You know it hurts your fingers."
"It's not sewing, it's crocheting. Besides, it keeps me busy. Are you eating supper?"
"No. Not before the game. I'll eat when I get home."
"What time are you leaving?"
"In a few minutes. Herbie's picking us up."
Brian went into his bedroom and changed his clothes. After the game, there would be Sarah Harper, and he didn't want her to see him in what he had worn to church. He took his cassock and surplice out of the gym bag and carefully hung them behind the door. His uniform lay folded on the bureau and he put it in the bag along with a towel and some shampoo. Brian stood, and took a last look around the room to see if he had forgotten anything. It was a small, neat room, and he always noticed if anything was out of place. The crucifix above the bed had last year's palms behind it, along with the scapular his godmother had given him on his first communion. His books were in alphabetical order on the shelf, along with his basketball weekly's, which were stacked according to date. Brian liked it that way. Besides, it kept his mother happy. Everything was a lot easier if his mother was happy. Especially now that his father was working overtime at the factory. That was the way the shoe business was. All or nothing. Some weeks were worse than others, but lately, there was a lot of overtime. In a way, that was goo, because they needed the money, but at the same time, it was bad, because it pushed his father to the limit. When he was tired, he didn't have the patience for little things, like taking out the trash, or drying the dishes. Those were Brian's jobs. Margie washed and he dried. She was usually pretty good about getting him before the strainer got full and his father noticed, but then again, she owed it to him, since he had introduced her to most of the boys she knew. She would probably be with one of them at the dance after the game tonight. Brian heard the horn beeping outside.
"I'll see you at the game ma," he said, kissing her lightly on the cheek as he passed.
"Good luck, Brian."
"I hope it doesn't come down to luck, that would mean I practiced for nothing."
Brian pounded down the stairs and out into the car.
"What's up Matt? Hey Herbie. Dave. You guys ready?"
"Yeah, but the question is, are you ready?"
"Yeah. Let's go."
Brian felt good warming up. His shots were dropping and he felt in control. He took of his St. Christopher medal and gave it to Herbie. He never took it off, but he had to at games, because the refs were afraid it would choke somebody. Brian thought back to the day he had had it blessed by Father Bennet. It was after he had served his first mass and he had worn it ever since. It made him feel safe, especially since it had been blessed.
Brian did his best to keep it close in the first half. All of his shots were dropping. Eastern Baptist was a big team, so he had to shoot from outside. When they doubled up on him, he dropped it off to Matthew Martin, and, for a change, Matthew was having a good night. At half time, Herbie gave them the usual rundown. Who had fouls, who had points. He was always very low key, but they all respected him, because he still played himself.
In the second half, Eastern Baptist started to pull away. Brian ended up with thirty-two points, but it was not enough. They lost by six. Brian sat on the bench in the locker room and tried to figure out where he had gone wrong. Maybe it was the lying at confession, he thought.
At the dance, Brian met Sarah. They had been going out for the past two months, and things were getting pretty serious. She could tell by the look on Brian's face that they had lost.
"It's okay Brian, I still love you", she said, kissing him lightly on the cheek. He tried to smile, and pulled her close to him. They held each other tightly for a moment, and then stepped apart. The dance was heavily chaperoned, and physical contact was not to be condoned.
"Let's go outside", Brian said.
The cold air was dirty, but it felt good against his face. Together, they walked their usual route down the alley between the church and the dry cleaners. Brian stepped aside and leaned up against the wall. Sarah was cold.
"C'mere", he said, pulling her close to him. She was shorter than Brian, and she rested her head on his shoulder, her face breathing warmly on her neck. He held her for a moment, breathing in her smell. It was a nice clean smell, partly from her hair, but mostly from her neck. She smelled like sweet new leather. Brian pulled back and kissed her mouth, gently at first, and then with more pressure. He felt her chest moving, gently, but rapidly, up and down, and he held her tighter. He thought, as he always did, about grabbing her firm, round young breasts, wondering what she would do. She probably wants me to, he thought. Two months, that's a long time. She'll let me. Brian moved his hands over her back, drawing her closer, and rubbing himself into her. You've got to do something, he thought.
"I don't believe what I'm seeing", the voice broke at them from the darkness. Brian opened his eyes and turned. He recognized the voice, but he wanted to make sure. It was Father Callahan. Brian felt his stomach sink, as though someone had grabbed him by the heart and was pulling it down through his stomach.
"And you, an altar boy. I'm ashamed. I just can't believe it. You both should know, but you, an altar boy......."
Brian turned, pulling Sarah by the arm, and started out of the alley. His head was pounding with the beat of his heart, right up in between the ears it rushed, crowding out his thoughts. It was still cold, but he didn't notice it. He didn't notice anything, he just kept moving.
"I just can't believe it. On church property. Father Callahan's voice trailed off, but there was no one there to hear it. Brian and Sarah were moving quickly down the sidewalk. After what seemed like forever, they arrived at Sarah's house. The lights were on in the living room, and they could see her parents, each in their own chair, staring at the television.
"Oh God. I can't believe it happened", Sarah whispered. "What are we going to do?"
"What can we do?" Brian asked, staring blankly at the window.
"I don't know."
"Nothing. That's all we can do. Nothing."
"There must be something."
"Listen, there's nothing we can do about it now. It's over. We'll just have to wait."
"It's not me that I care about Brian, it's you. He doesn't really know me, but you, you have to see him every day." Brian stood staring silently back at her. "What are you going to do?"
"Calm down. There's nothing I can do now. Don't even think about it. I'll call you in the morning after mass."
"Yeah. At eleven, but it's Father Feely's mass, thank God."
"He'll still be there though. Giving communion. He always does."
"Oh God. What do you think he'll do?"
"I don't know. I don't even want to think about it. Don't. Don't think about it. Just pretend it never happened."
"Listen, I said not to think about it. Just try and get some sleep and I'll call you tomorrow when I get home."
"All right Brian." She leaned forward to kiss him, but he just held her by the shoulders, gave her a squeeze, and turned and walked away.
It was colder now, and the wind had picked up. Brian was still in a daze as he followed the sidewalk back the way he came. He still felt sick inside, but mainly, he felt tired. It was as if his body wanted to got to sleep forever and not wake up. The walk back was much quicker. Brian could hear the music from the dance as he passed the gym. He noticed there was a light on in the sacristy. No one would be in there at this hour, he thought. Someone must have forgotten to turn off a light. Brian tried the side door, but it was locked. He knew that there was another door which let up from the basement into the sacristy. The basement was rarely locked, because there was nothing of value in it, and only a few people knew about the old back stairs. Brian lifted the iron doors of the bulkhead carefully, and climbed into the dark opening. The door was stiff, but it opened after a good push. He waited for a moment, trying to adjust his eyes to the darkness. Brian gradually made his way over to the curtain which covered the door to the back staircase. He fumbled for a moment, trying to find the doorknob, and then carefully felt his way up the stairs. The bright light in the sacristy hurt his eyes. He stood for a moment in the doorway, before he noticed the figure across the room. It was at an angle from him, diagonally, so that he could see it, but it couldn't see him. Brian stepped back into the doorway, holding the door open just a crack.
It was then that he saw Father Callahan. He had his back to Brian, and he appeared to be holding something. It wasn't something, it was someone. It was Kevin Thompson. Brian watched as they held each other for what seemed like a long time, but was only a moment. Just when he thought they would break apart, they brought their faces together and kissed. It wasn't a quick kiss, but it happened so quickly that Brian wasn't sure who had started it. It didn't matter though, because they both continued it. It went on and on. Brian wasn't sure how long it was before he realized they were kissing the way he and Sarah kissed. It seemed like a long time, but it was probably only a moment that just seemed like a long time because of his confusion. Brian closed the door silently, and groped back down the stairs as quietly as he could. He ran up out of the darkness of the bulkhead, not even bothering with the doors. He kept on running, not even thinking about where he was going. He concentrated on running as fast as he could, and tried hard to think of nothing else. His thighs began to hurt, and he began to slow. Brian walked, his lungs heaving, head back, looking at his breath as it streamed upwards towards the bright clean stars. He walked on, slowly, until he came to his house. The lights were on upstairs, so he was careful not to make any noise as he opened the basement door. Brian took his basketball out of the cellar, and carefully closed the door again. The temptation to dribble was almost unbearable, but he knew how much noise it would make, so he forced himself to wait until he was off the block.
At the corner of Fourteenth Street and Bradshaw Street, he began running, pushing the ball down and out in front of him. Thoughts pounded through his mind, faster and faster, until they were not even thoughts at all, but little picture post cards spinning through his mind. The empty silence of the playground was only partially lit by light from one of the street lights. Brian dribbled slowly out to the center of the court and stood in the circle. He took a long, slow step forward, and heaved the ball at the backboard. Bommmm..... The white steel of the backboard vibrated on, as the ball rolled slowly back towards him. He took another step and heaved. Bommmm.... This time, he let it drone on, listening to its hum as he picked up the ball and tossed it out at the other end of the court. He sprinted after it, catching it on the fly and pushing it down and out ahead of him as he ran. Up and down the court he sprinted, laying the ball gently off the backboard, recovering it, and sprinting towards the opposite basket. Hours passed, but he was not aware of time. The world had become the sound of the ball and the rhythm of his feet on the pavement. Brian forced his body beyond the fatigue, and he continued. He had driven all of the thoughts from his mind until only the sweat on his face remained. Brian sat down on the bench behind the basket and listened to the silence. It wasn't really silence, but more of a buzzing sound which became his head. It grew and grew until he felt his head was too big to move. He lay down with the ball under his head and felt the pressure in his head forcing down on the pressure inside the ball until gradually, the two became inseparable.
It was morning when Brian awoke. He felt confused for a moment, but he forgot about it when he realized how cold he was. He stood up, slowly, and stretched his tired body. It was then that he became aware of the fact that he hadn't slept forever. This was a disappointing fact. Brian picked up the ball and began to walk. He walked aimlessly for awhile, before finding himself at the gas station. There was no one around. He stood in front of the trash barrel, looking down into its darkness at the ashes which lay on the bottom. He stood there for a moment, and then took off his St. Christopher medal and dropped it into the barrel. He watched as it disappeared silently into the grey softness. The clock at the bank read ten-thirty, so Brian turned and walked away from the church towards the playground.
Brian sat against the back wall of the dry cleaners and waited. Confession started at three o'clock. It feels good to be warm again, he thought as the sun spread over him. He felt safe in the alley, because he knew Father Callahan was in church, preparing for confession. He always said confession on Sunday afternoons. Brian tried to think of what he would say, but the thoughts would not come. They would never come. Nothing would make sense anymore.
At five past three, Brian stood up and walked quickly into the vestibule of the church. He had never been in church without a tie on before. He glanced at the holy water in the fonts, but for the first time in his life, he passed them by. The church was almost empty, except for a few old women in the first few pews. Brian bypassed the pews, and went directly to the confessional, without even checking to see if it was vacant. Luckily, the confessional was empty when he pulled the curtain back. As he knelt down, the screen slid open, but he could not see anyone's face. He's sitting back too far, he thought. Brian adjusted his position on the kneeler so that his face was in the corner, away from the screen.
"Bless me Fa.......Bless......I've .......", he tried to begin, but the sound of his voice was so strange that he couldn't go on. The silence grew up at him, but it was broken by Father Callahan.
"What seems to be the problem, son?"
Brian closed his eyes and listened to the buzzing sound that the silence made. It grew louder and louder until he was sure that Father Callahan must have heard it too.
"If you don't talk to me son, I can't help you. Now what seems to be the problem?"
"I lied", Brian mumbled. "Everything. It's all a .......You're all a lie." He tried to continue, but the words would not come. It was all useless. He ran out of the church and through the alley. By the time he got to the other end, the buzzing had almost stopped. He tried to think of something, somewhere to go, but there was no way out. Nothing. He was there. This is it, he thought. Then it occurred to him, as he walked by the Store Twenty-Four. He went inside and bought a can of fluorescent red spray paint.
It wasn't until Monday morning that Father Callahan saw it. He had been out on his morning walk and was almost out of the alley and onto Fourteenth Street before he realized that something felt wrong. He wasn't quite sure what it was, until he looked up from the pavement. Father Callahan stood in disbelief, as his mouth involuntarily formed the words which were written in six foot high red letters on the church wall:
"Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?", he repeated softly to himself.
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