By Alan Bennett Ilagan
Staring at the body of Christ, Jesse Crawford jerked off beneath the basketball-covered sheets of his bed. In the burgeoning light of an early Sunday morning, the bronze patina of a crucifix held his gaze. He focused on the thin torso of the figure, and the space right below his navel. The smudged face, full of sorrow and anguish, did not betray pain, but the notion of hurt and suffering drove Jesse on, and he stroked faster.
Struggling with himself, he tried turning the image of Jesus into a woman. Squinting his sleepy eyes, he took blood from the thorns and painted the lips red. He gave the dark flowing locks a lighter tint, and softened the mouth and cheeks. That was as far as he got. The rest remained stubbornly male. The small, dark nipples, the smooth flat chest, the midsection that tapered into the teasing folds of cloth. One of the most revered symbols of the world was a half-dead, half-naked man, and it was to this image that Jesse furiously rubbed his cock.
His brother John slept quietly a few feet away, his breathing slow and measured. The red digital numbers of an alarm clock glowed between two twin beds, hovering in the air above the debris of two boys. It was just after seven o’clock. Jesse looked over at his brother. A mass of wavy brown hair was all that peeked out from the blankets. He looked back at Jesus. His hand slowed. It was all getting muddled together. He gave up and threw the covers off, still hard.
The bed let out a small groan as Jesse sat up. His legs hung over the side as he studied his brother. He wanted John to get up and share the dread of having to go to church in a few hours, and, later, of Jesse’s lesson. A flicker of resentment and quick guilt pulsed through him. It wasn’t John’s fault that Jesse was the first. The fear rose in him again. He pulled a pillow over his lap and kicked John’s bed. His little brother rolled over and looked at him.
“Why are you up so early?” John signed as he yawned.
Jesse shrugged. He was embarrassed to admit he was nervous. John hid his hands beneath the blankets and pulled them over his head. It was too early to get up. Jesse’s erection had gone down.
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He walked tentatively downstairs. Mr. Crawford was in the family room, his face hidden entirely by a mottled gray newspaper. The television droned on in the background, unwatched. Jesse’s mother must be in the upstairs bathroom. Jesse walked past his father and into the empty kitchen. A box of doughnuts was on the table and the smell of coffee filled the room. Sunlight streamed in through the slatted window blinds. Rows of shadow and light alternated along the patterned linoleum floor. Jesse sat down and watched the dust particles moving through the sunbeams. He opened the box of doughnuts, glanced in, and shut it. They would not help his hunger.
Mr. Crawford padded into the kitchen, wearing his bed slippers over dress socks. A crisp white shirt was tucked into his gray wool pants, and a diagonally-striped tie hung in a loose knot around his neck. He placed a hand on Jesse’s shoulder before going to the sink and washing his coffee cup.
“Ready for practice this week?” he asked. “Where’s John?”
Jesse didn’t answer.
“You’ll do fine,” Mr. Crawford murmured as he left the kitchen. Upstairs, a low buzzing indicated that Mrs. Crawford was now drying her hair. John’s sudden pounding down the stairs jolted Jesse from his empty zone. He reached for a jelly doughnut before John got to them.
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Outside on the sidewalk, Elise Olin passed the Crawford house with her dog, a thin dalmatian she had named Cooper. The creature skittishly veered off onto the neighbors’ lawns before scampering back to Elise’s side, repeating this action to her slight annoyance. Elise’s dark brown hair looked black in all but the strongest light, and she kept it tied back in a simple braided ponytail for as long as anyone could remember. A shiny, unwavering fringe of bangs veiled a rather high forehead. Elise was not pretty yet, but she might be one day.
The sunny Sunday morning had been glorious for a walk. Turned out in a plaid pea coat, Elise closed her eyes and took in the morning sun. Soon the warmth would disappear with the coming winter. She breathed in deeply, trying to find some last bit of summer, but it was already gone. Fall was here. The Crawford house was behind her now, and she relaxed.
Rounding the corner onto her street, Elise walked beneath the shadows of a tall line of maple trees, their leaves fluttering and shuddering in the first flush of Fall. This street was cooler than Jesse’s, perpetually in the dim recesses of light. The trees were older, and the houses closer together. The dog stayed nearer to her here, as if calmer and more secure, with less of a need to act out. Elise hesitated at the steps to her house, unwilling to let go of the Sunday solitude. As the dog promptly laid down upon her feet, Elise’s mouth turned up in the slightest of smiles.
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St. Ann’s church sent up her gray Gothic spires a few blocks from the Crawford house. Erected in 1917, a sturdy stone edifice comprised the front of the church – its base a bulky set of enormous concrete blocks. Upon close viewing, tiny fissures could be seen snaking their way through the walls, but the structure was strong.
The pale, putty-colored monolith was interspersed with narrow strained-glass windows, high and unreachable – intricately-color-blocked renderings of obscure saints, faded and dull with grime in the light of day. Layers of pigeon droppings were caked on the lower window ledges like dried pools of dripping marble. The back of the church was covered with a thick growth of Boston ivy. In the winter the scars showed more clearly on the façade – the vine had attached itself to the stone and was slowly and insidiously pulling off the face of the church. And still, the strength of the building had not been compromised.
A much smaller stone building was hidden behind the church, forever in the shadow cast by the tall steeple. This was the rectory, which housed the priests. Though a few minor renovations had been made inside the priests’ quarters, the exterior of both the rectory and the church had remained largely the same since 1917. Behind the rectory was a small cemetery, cloaked by a few ancient maple trees.
Surrounding the grounds was a mostly Polish population of families and homes that radiated outward for a few blocks, before giving way to a larger European background. Jesse’s family used to walk to Sunday services when the boys were quite young. Now they took the car.
Both of the giant entrance doors were propped open for Mass, the faded wood of which were buttressed by bands of dark steel, indented by the pounding of mallets or hammers many years ago. The Crawford family walked through them absently. John no longer marveled at the immense frame, looking instead for the holy water font. He reached up and put his hand into the chilly water, them made a careful sign of the cross, wiping the smudge of water from his forehead with his other hand. Mrs. Crawford put her arm around him and led the family into the church.
Paint-splattered scaffolding had been assembled on both sides of the great hall, as well as over the back entrance, above which the old organ stood on a second floor balcony. The Crawford family paused there, the sense of space inspiring a fleeting hush. An ongoing renovation was underway, the main goal of which was to restore the pipe organ to its former glory. Patrons had been called upon to “give until it hurts” in recent weeks, but the project was still in danger of running beyond its allotted schedule. Mr. Crawford walked forward to the family’s usual pew near the front of the church.
Midway through the mass, Father Daemon stood for his homily, eyeing the organ above the rows of people. He didn’t like asking for money, but it was a large part of his job now. It didn’t ease his conscience any when he worked it into the sermon.
“As you heard in the Gospel, today’s lesson is, at its heart, one of faith – an unyielding faith in God, no matter what the sacrifices or hardships that God asks us to make. It is what some might call a blind faith.”
Father Daemon railed on this theme for some time. It was one of his favorite sermons, made more powerful in its abstract theory and blind belief – an idea that realists didn’t bother to refute, and science largely ignored. This re-affirmed him, and he mostly believed it did the same for his congregation. He returned to its essence whenever he doubted himself.
“And so we ask you to have faith in our own church, as we undergo our renovation,” he said with a smile, motioning to the organ that loomed over the last few pews. “As you know, our organ has been chosen as a restoration project, and with your generous help we hope to have it fill this great church with glorious music once again.” A small spattering of applause grew into a hearty wake-up for those who were asleep.
Jesse turned around, straining to see the dusty, cloth-covered mass of pipes and wood that constituted the once-grand organ. He snickered a little and, nudging John, rolled his eyes.
Father Daemon continued, “And in other news, we have a new addition to our clerical staff. I’d like to formally introduce Brother Logan, who will be helping us out for the next few months, and it is certainly needed right now, particularly given Monsignor’s recent illness. Brother Logan comes to us directly from Rome, where he has been on sabbatical for the last year. Please join me in welcoming him to our church, and I’m sure he will be an excellent addition.” Father Daemon extended his open hand to indicate the man standing unobtrusively beside the confessional. The man, dressed all in black, gave a small wave and smiled. Jesse leaned forward and saw his bright blue eyes take him in. Turning to John, he rolled his eyes again, but then looked back at the man, who also looked back at him. John nudged him, but he waved him off. He didn’t feel like explaining it.
At communion, Brother Logan made his way up to the altar to help distribute the gifts. Jesse watched him closely, hoping to catch his blue eyes again, and trying to hide his interest from his family. Logan looked too young to be a priest, but maybe a Brother was not yet a priest, or maybe just a priest-in-training. He didn’t know. Watching him as he executed his motions was all that mattered now. His actions were earnest and grave, and this serious demeanor seemed sad and lonely. His dark hair was cut in the sharp closely-cropped military style, probably a leftover from an army stint, Jesse guessed.
Though he fought the thought, Jesse found him handsome. His mind raced to an image of Brother Logan naked, and he strained to find any outline of his body through the black shirt and pants he wore. Jesse bowed his head and closed his eyes. He couldn’t stop it. The image of Brother Logan filled his head. He saw him taking off his pants. He tried inserting a woman in the scene. He watched Brother Logan kiss her, and then he was kissing Jesse, and then he was fucking her, and then he was fucking Jesse, and Jesse didn’t know how it would feel, but he wanted to feel it. The bells rang, and he remembered his lesson later that day. He shuffled his feet, willing his erection away before the lines for communion began.
After mass, the Crawford family filed out of the church with the rest of the parishioners. Father Daemon greeted them warmly, shaking their hands and mentioning that he’d see Jesse for practice that evening. John walked by without shaking the priest’s hand, already heading impatiently for the car.
“What time is your altar boy practice?” Mrs. Crawford asked after the family returned home.
“Seven o’clock,” Jesse mumbled, annoyed.
“Do you want a ride?”
“No. I’ll walk.”
Mrs. Crawford stepped past Jesse and headed upstairs to change. John was watching the close-captioned television with their father as Jesse sat down alone in the kitchen. The light had changed and the sun had moved. Someone, probably John, had left the doughnut box half-open. Jesse shut it, but the top popped back up. He didn’t bother again; doughnuts weren’t good the next day anyway. There was time for a nap, or he could start his homework. The nap sounded better, but he picked up his backpack in the hallway as he went upstairs.
Dropping it at the foot of his bed, he untucked his shirt and laid down. On the ceiling he traced the faint outlines of a group of glow-in-the-dark stars that no longer emitted any residual light. During the day they were the palest yellowish-green in color. Jesse found the one that was missing two of its points, torn off in the giddy first rush of putting them up. He closed his eyes, secure that John would wake him soon enough.
The doors to the church were closed when Jesse arrived a few minutes before seven, but at his tentative pull they proved unlocked, opening with surprising ease despite their great size. Upon entering, Jesse saw that the grand hall was empty. It seemed bigger and cavernous, and somehow colder. Without the lights on it felt spooky – shadows loomed behind statues, while peaceful stone faces gained menace in the dark. There was a different kind of quiet, born out of darkness and mystery.
The dilapidated organ stood beneath dusty shrouds, hovering over the back of the church like an ominous monster, hidden in the background, waiting to pounce. A large marble façade backed the altar. Statues of Jesus, Mary, and some other Saint he didn’t know loomed high above them. There was a walkway behind the structure, with a few hidden closets that stored candles and holders and extra chairs.
Jesse walked down the side aisle towards the front of the church. At the West entrance, he saw a shadow move along the floor and approach. He stiffened and stood up straight, expecting Father Daemon. Instead, Brother Logan appeared. Jesse felt a chilly thrill, coloring at his thoughts of that morning. They both spoke at once.
“Hi, I’m looking for…”
“You must be…”
“Jesse…” Brother Logan put up his hand. “You go first,” he laughed.
“I’m here to see Father for an altar boy lesson.”
It was the boy from that morning’s mass, the tall one in the front row. “Yes, I thought so. Good. He asked me to do it, your lesson. He was called out. I’m Brother Logan. So, you’ve never served mass before?” Brother Logan spoke quickly, breathlessly. He was a little shorter than Jesse, and the pale skin of his scalp showed through his short, dark hair. His body was bulkier up close, more substantial, matching his full lips. “Let’s get some light in here first,” he said, patting Jesse on the arm as he passed him, locating a row of switches behind the entrance door. Jesse breathed in as he walked by, trying to locate some sense of what he smelled like, but the air was blank. Spotlights flooded the altar area as the clicking of switches echoed throughout the church.
‘This place, this moment… this is holy,’ Jesse thought. He didn’t know if it was the quiet of the church or the company, or both. As the lights came on, he could study the nape of Brother Logan’s neck. Two broad strokes of dark downy hair disappeared into the high collar. Jesse wondered if he had a hairy chest. As he turned around, he caught Jesse staring.
They looked at one another just long enough to have it mean something. Jesse gazed into his watery blue eyes, sparkling and shining of their own accord, and was transfixed by the benevolence of his smile, directed only at him, or maybe not, but it had to be, didn’t it?
Brother Logan walked to the center of the church, in front of the main altar. Jesse followed, watching his deliberate manner of walking and attempting again to gain a small note of what he smelled like, some bit of aftershave or soap or laundry detergent, but still he found nothing.
“How old are you?” Brother Logan suddenly asked.
“Oh, you carry yourself like you were older.”
Jesse tried to stifle a smile. “I’m just tall,” he said sheepishly.
As he guided Jesse through the Mass, Brother Logan felt a familiar suppressed stirring. He tried to think back to when he was thirteen. There were feelings then. A few wet dreams. A strange sensation he felt when around certain men showering in the gym or working out. Then his long dry spell of self-imposed sterility. The church was a way out of it, his answer to a gnawing ache, where solitude and quiet were accepted and expected.
Brother Logan watched Jesse as he approached the altar, his tall, slim figure lost in an oversize t-shirt and deep blue jeans. Wavy, chestnut-hued hair was brushed haphazardly forward over his forehead and curled around his ears.
“All right, let’s walk through it. That’s the only way I learned it.”
“You were an altar boy?” Jesse asked.
“Many years ago,” Brother Logan laughed. “But I started a lot younger than you.”
“And you still wanted to become a priest after this?”
Another laugh. “Well, actually, no. I went into the army after school, and after that I started my training for the priesthood.” The smile left his face. “So, let’s go to the entrance and walk through it now.”
Jesse felt silly as he and Brother Logan walked in together, side by side, as he would do in a few weeks, yet there was something else to their walking together – a sense of union, a shared, secret bond between the two of them alone, one that might give strength and nourishment and sustenance in lonelier times. It was a moment he saw himself remembering many years in the future.
“The altar boys will bow with Father in front of the altar, then go up to your seats,” he explained. The motions of Mass seemed much smaller now, quicker and easier than the drawn-out sequence that constituted previous Sunday mornings. Brother Logan made it sound simple. With his guidance and easy explanations, Jesse’s worry faded. In his company, Jesse felt empowered, almost excited about being a part of this piece of church. It was a happiness he equated with faith, a faith whose existence he continually doubted. Was having faith in Brother Logan the same as having faith in his religion? He hoped so.
Jesse’s stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten since morning. In the presence of Brother Logan he’d forgotten his hunger, satisfied for the moment just to be with him. After they finished running through the final part of the mass, they walked together to the back of the church, where Jesse had come in.
“So, I think you’re ready. To be an altar boy.”
Jesse wanted to say something, to prolong this moment. He wanted to stay with Brother Logan a little longer, but all he could muster was some talk about basketball, and how he had just made the starting line-up.
“Hey, that’s great! Good for you.”
Jesse mumbled something in agreement, unconvinced that basketball mattered that much.
“Do you need a ride? Home?” Brother Logan seemed unwilling to end their conversation as well, but Jesse didn’t appear interested in further talk.
“No thanks. I can walk. It’s just a few blocks away. And I like to walk.”
“So, if you want to play some one-on-one, let me know. I could use the challenge,” and he shook Jesse’s hand with both of his. It was warm, and encompassed all.
“How’d it go?” Mr. Crawford said absently as Jesse walked into the family room. “Dinner’s in the oven.”
“How was it?” Mrs. Crawford asked, walking in distractedly. “Where’s John? Did he get his homework done?”
“Good,” Jesse said as he ran upstairs.
“In his room, I think,” Mr. Crawford replied, going back to his newspaper and giving an occasional glance toward the television.
“Dinner’s ready!” Mrs. Crawford yelled after Jesse. “Bring John down with you.”
In their bedroom, John was sitting on the floor assembling a number of metallic robots, forming two groups to face off against each other. He looked up upon feeling Jesse’s foot-falls on the wooden floor.
Who can say where love is borne and why? A kindness in his eyes, the thoughtful furrow of his brow, the gentle but firm grip on his shoulders – all these came to mind when Jesse thought of Brother Logan. There was compassion in his intent, a sense of protection Jesse felt but didn’t understand. He watched John wage his war, crashing his toys into each other, unable to hear any of the noise.
The common room of the rectory was lit with two amber lampshades. A television emitted the dull applause of a game show audience as Father Daemon sat in a slip-covered easy chair. Reddish wood paneling covered the walls and the once-thick shag carpet, rust in color, was worn thin in front of the couch and chair. Father sat up when Brother Logan came into the room.
“Oh, you’re back,” he said.
“Yes. How did… Jim do?” Father Daemon asked.
“Right, of course. How was it?”
“He was good. Very nice boy.”
“Good, very good,” Father Daemon said, then went back to watching the game show. Brother Logan sat down in the corner of the couch, looking around the depressing room. As a commercial came on, Father Daemon lowered the volume, turning to Brother Logan. “You’re probably accustomed to more spiritual quests, but this is how we do it here. Nothing too fancy. I hope you don’t find it too dull. We do rise early though, so it’ll behoove you to get rest.” He smiled weakly. Brother Logan acknowledged it with a nod of his head.
“Oh, that’s fine. They watch a bit of T.V. in Rome too.”
Father Daemon returned to his game show. When it was done he rose. “Well, Brother, welcome. We’re glad to have you here.” He followed this with a confidential whisper. “Monsignor isn’t what he used to be, but he’s glad too. You’ll meet him tomorrow, maybe. If he’s up for it. Good night, Brother.”
The room was still. Sounds of a creaking door being closed, then the turn of a lock. Brother Logan let out a deep breath and leaned back into the couch. Closing his eyes, he thought about the boy.
Jesse walked to school with Elise Olin. There was an early frost on the lawns and the cold fog of a Fall morning swirled around them. These were mostly quiet walks. Jesse felt comfortable enough with Elise not to try to fill the silence, and Elise usually kept to herself. It had been this way since nursery school, both children thrown together at any early age and not caring to question parental friendships and neighborhood proximity. Even so, they weren’t especially friendly at school, sitting at different lunch tables and traveling in separate packs. They walked together in the morning though, and sometimes after school. Elise couldn’t tell if she felt friendship, or a sort of familial love for Jesse, or if it was moving in a different direction.
Jesse felt her by his side. He mentioned the altar boy practice, and meeting Brother Logan, then stopped short when he saw her looking at him strangely. He hadn’t realized that it was the most he’d said to her in weeks, and in the awkward silence that followed he waited for her question, but it never came.
The sidewalk turned into the school parking lot, with spikes of grass gone to seed poking through the cracks and resting against the curb. Elise walked to her small group of girlfriends as Jesse headed over to the corner to a couple of his teammates. They were talking about basketball, but Jesse wasn’t listening. The bell for class rang and he ambled away without saying anything.
The first Sunday Jesse served as an altar boy was in October. He couldn’t sleep the previous night, dreading the thought of being in front of all those people. Would he make a mistake? Would they all know? The thought of Brother Logan being there left him conflicted as well. More than anything else, he wanted to make him proud, to prove that he was good and smart and worthy of his attention. He thought of what Brother Logan had said about Jesse seeming older. It emboldened him.
He looked over at the boy putting on his cassock and surplice. His name, according to the schedule, was Brian. He was a year older than Jesse, and had spiky hair, held in a stiff pose by gobs of dried gel that was flaking off the ends.
“This is your first time?” he asked.
“Don’t worry, it’s easy. Father Daemon guides you through most of it. I’ll help you out too.”
Jesse didn’t know if he should trust him, but he smiled and said, “Thanks.” He searched the musty closet for a cassock that fit his elongated body. He hadn’t grown into himself yet, but he wasn’t awkward. He moved with ease, possessing a preternatural precision and grace despite his height. He couldn’t see this yet. He only knew that he was good at basketball, and he didn’t have to try.
Assembling at the entrance to the church, the boys peered out to see the standing congregation. Father Daemon looked down and rested his hand on Jesse’s shoulder. He began to sing the opening hymn in a loud voice. His eyes studied the exposed skin of the neck and the pattern of Jesse’s hairline as it tapered down into his collar. Underneath his robe he adjusted himself, then gave Jesse a light push forward.
The two boys walked into the Church as the parishioners stood. Father followed behind them, bellowing the song and pretending to read the hymn book as he looked at the boys’ awkward gait before him. Reaching the altar, all three bowed before climbing the steps to their seats. Jesse tripped on his Cassock while going up the steps, but he didn’t fall. His face burned red. It felt like everyone was looking at him. After reaching his seat, he turned around and looked up to Father Daemon. He was singing and looking out to the congregation. No one but his parents seemed to notice that this was his first time serving, and their faces betrayed little.
Following his homily, Father turned with a flourish and walked back to his seat. He motioned for Jesse and Brian to stand, and both rose to their feet.
“We believe in one God…” Father began, and the rest of the congregation took over the Apostle’s Creed. The altar boys began the preparations for communion. Jesse nervously carried the water and wine, and Father Daemon put out his hands to be washed.
They made their way to the front of the altar, where Jesse made his only mistake. He knelt down when he should have remained standing, but tried to pass it off as a genuflection. His back was to the congregation so he couldn’t see if anyone was looking at him. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Brian for signals. It would be time to ring the bells soon and Jesse didn’t want to mess up. He went through the four moments in his head, recalling Brother Logan’s hand on his as they rang the bells together.
Father raised his voice,
“Take this, all of you, and eat it.
This is my body and it will be given up for you.”
He raised the host and Jesse turned the bells in his hand. Their ringing was abrupt, but tiny in the vast expanse of the church. Father lowered the host and bowed.
“He took the cup. Again he gave thanks and praise.
He gave the cup to his disciples and said,
‘Take this, all of you and drink from it.
This is my blood –
it is the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.
It will be shed for you and for all so that your sins may be forgiven.
Do this in memory of me.’”
He raised the chalice. Jesse rang the bells for the second time.
The tricky one was coming up. Father would place his hands over the offering and Jesse was supposed to ring the bells as he intoned the words,
“Lord let your spirit come upon these gifts
and make them holy so that they may become
for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
He rang them at the right moment and felt a wave of relief. The hardest part was over. Tasteless wafers and cheap wine had been transformed into the body and blood of Christ by the words of a Priest and the timely ringing of a bell.
Father Daemon raised the gifts high above him and sang out in a clear voice,
“Through him, with him, in him,
In the unity of the Holy Spirit,
All glory and honor are yours almighty Father,
Forever and ever.”
The make-shift interim organ sounded weakly and the rest of the mass passed in a haze. As they bowed and exited the hall, Jesse and Brian walked back to the changing room as Father Daemon stood by the door and greeted the departing crowd.
Brother Logan was waiting in the back room. “So, good job guys!” he said cheerily. Brian eyed him warily, then shook his hand.
Jesse said a quick, “Thanks.”
The changing room was also used for storage. Shelves overflowed with candles, hosts packed in plastic, rusty candle holders, incense burners, and altar cloths. Brian quickly took off his surplice and cassock, hung them messily on a hanger, and said a curt goodbye.
“Hey, thanks,” Jesse called out. With a small nod, Brian left.
“So, how’d it go?” Brother Logan asked as Jesse unbuttoned his long cassock.
“Good, I think.” Even though his regular clothes were on beneath the cassock, he felt strange as he pulled it off. It was different than a jacket or coat, and removing it in front of Brother Logan had the faint implication of intimacy. There was a minor exhilaration in the action. He turned around to hang up the black robe. In the reflection of a framed picture of Jesus, Jesse saw the gray silhouette of Brother Logan in the doorway, and he knew he was watching him.
Father Daemon entered in a rush, brushing by Jesse and Brother Logan.
“The boys did a great job,” Brother Logan said, then, looking at Jesse, “A perfect first-timer.”
“That’s right, excellent work Jim… err, Jesse. Thank you!”
Jesse put on his denim jacket and walked toward the door.
“Yes, thanks Jesse,” Brother Logan said. “Let us know if any of your friends would want to help out too.” He walked over to Father Daemon. “We could use a few more boys – the serving schedule is getting thin.”
Brother Logan just saw him as a kid, and the realization stung Jesse. He left the holy men to their discussion and walked out of the office to find his family.
Brian’s mother was talking to Mrs. Crawford, “I told Brian to help him along and watch out for him.” Brian was at the door telling his Mom to hurry up.
“Hey, nice job, sport,” Mr. Crawford said. John was smirking behind them.
The family walked to the car. A wind was blowing brown leaves off of the maple trees and the cold snap of Fall bit through the sun.
Mrs. Crawford had made her usual Sunday dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. It was John’s favorite and he was hungrily forking a heaping pile of pasta onto his plate. A coriander of extra spaghetti sat steaming in the kitchen sink. Jesse washed his hands in the corner of the steel basin, trying to avoid splashing the pasta with dishwasher soap. He dried his hands on a damp towel and watched his family from across the room. They sat around the circular table with one empty chair left for him. Over them hung a low ceiling lamp, its center bulb shining directly down onto the family dinner. The glowing table was a warm world of food bowls, full plates and tall glasses, the stuff of nourishment and life – and Jesse had no part in it. His empty chair was pushed slightly away from the table, left at an odd angle and a little out of place in the perfect scene.
Jesse paused, listening to the delicate clinking of utensils and the occasional thud of a glass of milk being set down. It should have felt safe, but he found no comfort there, thinking instead of Brother Logan’s double-handed grip as he shook hands, and the smile Jesse wanted so badly to believe was meant only for him.
“Can you grab the butter, Jesse?” Mrs. Crawford asked.
He was doing his homework alone in the kitchen when the phone rang.
“Hello, this is Brother Logan from St. Ann’s. Is Jesse there?”
“This is Jesse.”
“Oh, hello! Father and I were talking, and since you did such a great job today we were wondering if you could help out at an altar-boy training next week.” Jesse felt the nervous excitement that he was coming to associate with Brother Logan. Blood rushed into his cock as he tried to register what was just said.
“Umm, yeah. Sure, I think so. We don’t have basketball practice on Sunday,” he finally managed to blurt out.
“Oh good. Thank you so much. I think it’ll help you too. Be a little more comfortable, I mean. How about the same time and place then. Do you need a ride? Or anything?”
“No, it’s no problem. See you then.”
“Okay then. I’ll… well, yes, see you then. Thanks again. Bye.”
Mrs. Crawford padded into the kitchen, startling Jesse. “Oops, I’m sorry! Who was it?”
“That Brother from the church, Brother Logan. Scheduling another altar boy practice next week.”
“Do you need more practice?” his mother asked.
Jesse was getting aggravated. “It’s to train someone else I guess.” He pretended to go back to his homework. Inside, he thrilled at the chance to be alone with Brother Logan again.
At school that week, Jesse found it difficult to concentrate. When his friends tried to engage him in basketball talk or Halloween prank plans, his mind wandered to his next meeting with Brother Logan. He listlessly apologized when they called him on not listening.
“What’s wrong with you lately?” his friend Daniel asked, catching up to him in the hallway.
“Sorry, just scattered. Tired I guess.”
“Aww, come on. Who is she?” he teased.
“No girl,” Jesse said, breaking into a wide smile. Daniel gave him a quick punch in the shoulder and ran off to class.
His basketball coach also noticed the shift. Jesse had been one of the best players, and a promising addition to the varsity team, but Coach could see the boy was relying on his height and natural talent without working very hard for any of it. He kept his praise to a minimum, hoping Jesse would rise to the challenge and find his own way out, but it only seemed to quiet him. For his part, Jesse noticed very little of the subtle changes he had fostered in those around him, and if they were acting differently, well, what did it matter, really?
Only one man inspired him, and as he arrived at the church a few minutes early for their meeting, he’d forgotten all the silly things that had happened at school that week. At the door, Brother Logan looked surprised, but happy.
“Oh, Jesse. I’m so sorry… I tried calling, but figured it was too late. We’ve had to cancel the practice… the other boy won’t be serving after all…” Brother Logan murmured, his voice trailing off without explanation. Jesse was just happy to be with him again, and if they were alone, so much the better. “Did you want to go through mass again? Just for you? I feel bad you came out here for nothing.”
“No, I mean, I live right here. I think I know the mass, but I wanted you… to ask you, I mean, a few questions about stuff,” Jesse began nervously, trying to make up some excuse to stay.
“Sure,” Brother Logan said. He paused, looking to the side. “Come on back to the rectory.”
It was a crisp autumn afternoon, a throwback to summer, even if the sun was lower and the shadows deeper. They walked quietly out of the church and through the small lot, leaves crunching beneath their feet. Jesse shuffled along behind Brother Logan, dragging his sneakers on the pavement. Inside the rectory the smells of cooking mingled with the musty scent of old wood. “Father Daemon is making the hospital rounds, I’m just getting dinner ready.” He turned to look more closely at Jesse. “Again, I’m sorry about the mix-up and canceling practice. So, what did you want to talk about?” he ventured, not wanting to scare the boy away, but still maintaining an appropriate distance. He returned Jesse’s gaze.
Jesse’s eyes traveled to Brother Logan’s belt, and the creases in his black pants.
“Umm, you know how you said you were an altar boy, and then later you wanted to become a priest… and, umm, how did you know? I mean, what you wanted to do?” Jesse looked down, then back up at Brother Logan’s belt. A dull silver buckle, well-worn and tarnished almost black in spots, was fastened above his midsection. Jesse couldn’t stop himself from looking at Brother Logan’s crotch. Logan saw the look and turned around to step into the kitchen. He came back with his arms folded on his chest.
“Hmm, I guess deep down I always knew, and then a series of events… the army, my brother’s passing… life changes you could say, brought me to this point in my path. But I still don’t know if you ever really know what you want to do.”
“Well that’s… disheartening,” Jesse replied, laughing a little and trying to skip over the dead brother comment.
“I know, sorry. There’s never an easy, clear-cut answer. But you’re too young to really worry about that now, right? You should be having fun.”
Being discounted for his youth always bothered Jesse; coming from Brother Logan made it much worse. He swallowed the bitterness and narrowed his eyes. This time it was Brother Logan who looked, and as Jesse caught him staring he gave up a sly smile.
“Anyway, thanks for talking a little. I’m kind of glad there wasn’t another boy here,” he said, backing away.
“Was that all you wanted? To talk about?”
“Yeah… yeah, that’s it.” He turned to open the door. “Oh, one more thing,” he said, facing Brother Logan again. He paused. His eyes surveyed all of him. “Are you ready?”
Jesse summoned a daring smile. “For the Fall?”
Brother Logan appeared confused, then matched his amusement, “Not yet… almost.”
Outside, someone was burning leaves. Smoke hung in the cold air. Jesse walked home alone.
“Did anyone call while I was out?” he asked after entering the house.
Mr. Crawford was watching television. After a minute he replied, “What’s that, sport? No, I don’t think so. No one called.”
Jesse walked through the room to go upstairs. “Hey,” Mr. Crawford called, “Do you have a basketball game this week?” he asked.
“Yeah, but it’s away.”
“Okay. You need a ride?”
“No, Dad, the bus will bring us. Thanks though.”
“Okay, sport.” He went back to his program.