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Agnus Dei

Al Billings

Like a vampire bat preparing for sleep, dusk encircled Holy Thursday evening. Above the church, Venus winked lazily against an orange and blue sunset. To the north, silhouetted mountains hunkered under black scrub oaks, and the drone of a battered forestry airplane buzzed cleanly against the fading light. Horned lizards dozed under piles of dry eucalyptus leaves. On this night, dust drew its own conclusions in the charged, desert air.

I stepped into the empty church. Around me, statues hunkered under violet shrouds. A thin residue of floor wax and incense drifted over the pews. For a moment, I stood still and took it all in: the silence, the smoke, the clear, cold night, and the gleaming golden candlesticks. I had watched my father build this church, framing, lifting beam and joist, and patiently sculpting the rails and pews. Now, deep inside the altar, relics, the mysterious, crumbling bones of a saint, brought authority and spooky mystery to the building.

I served as an altar boy, and I felt useful in that capacity, even though I possessed no religious beliefs. The rituals of pouring wine, the pungent sharpness of melting bee’s wax and the guttural Latin charmed me. I was seduced by the details of the Mass.

Years before my father had fallen from a dry dock while constructing an enormous fishing trawler and shattered his knee caps. When I watched him gird himself before work with leather and steel trusses, I imagined that those saint’s relics concealed some mysterious magical force that might yet cure him. He was, I felt, a holy carpenter, a wounded Joseph, a silent master of his patient craft.

A side door slammed, and a priest silently glided onto the altar, swept the church with his eyes, and stared hard at me. Small and dainty, his thin, graying hair parted in the middle and swept back angrily against his scalp, like a skull cap. His red, sagging eyes burned from small slits in his creamy face, and his chin jutted forward like a judo chop. His cheeks blotchy, he looked the way my father and the pastor did when they stayed awake and drank all night. I quickly entered the sacristy, opened the closet and put on cassock and surplice.

Then, I prepared for mass, poured wine into cruets, lit candles and incense cakes, and carried them onto the altar. The priest watched me closely. House keys in my pocket dug into my leg. I reached in to shift them, and this was the infraction he was looking for. He began to shout in a thick, Irish brogue, “Take your hands out of your pockets, get down on your knees right here, in front of me, do you realize what you have done in God’s House?” Then, in a blur, he began slapping my face, back and forth, hard and loud, stinging, until my eyes filled with tears. I looked up at his mouth, contorted in rage, sweat glistening on his forehead, then down at his delicate, soft shoes, flat-bottomed, with coarse stitching at the soles, little moccasins, comfortable, prissy, and I pictured his pink feet swathed in the rich leather. I wanted to piss on those shoes. Now the pungent fragrance of burning incense gagged me, the glittering candles danced dangerously, and the Mass became a form of penance. Latin phrases jingled with hollow rebuke. I walked back home along the tree line, staring at my feet, rubbing my face, then telling my story to my father. Later that night there were angry phone calls, rumbling, serious voices, and then laughter, easy apologies, all washed over with shots of whiskey long after I went in bed.

My father died two months later, on St. Joseph’s Day. The nuns chattered on about St. Joseph and my father both being carpenters, and tried to make Irish magic out of his alcohol-soaked death. I served Mass at the funeral. Later, we posed for photos, the pastor handing my mother the crucifix from the top of my father’s coffin. She offered him a thin, tight smile and looked off into the distance. Dressed in mourning black, with a veil over her face, she gazed into infinity, struggling to understand how she was expected to feed and clothe me. On cue from the photographer, I looked up at both of them. It was an empty, frightening moment. My mother slumped gently. I watched the pastor preen for the camera, hollow and grinning, and then pass the real work and responsibility on to her.

Sometimes on a smoggy summer night, we’d watch the vapor trails of missiles shot from Vandenburg Air Force Base, over on the coast below Santa Barbara. The sick, neon greens and pinks from the oxidized rocket fuel created a spectacular display. Chanting nuns lapped the football field, hissing Latin through their buck teeth and sour breath. They headed back to the convent, and like the pastor, locked themselves in, safely away from us. We hid behind the basketball courts and smoked our fathers’ stolen cigarettes. A summer brush fire glowed eerily behind sharp mountain ridges, and the rumble of empty borate bombers shook the valley. The horned lizards moved on to higher, more private ground amidst the salty hum of the fading foothills, and God himself was nowhere to be found.

May 24, 2012 11:47 am

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