It was still dark when the eighth grade boy walked up the three stone steps to the back door of the church, leading into the sacristy. The door was unlocked. Inside, his classmates Rick and Tom, the president and veep of the altar boys, were already in the black cassocks they wore for serving Mass. The two were rummaging in the cabinets that lined the narrow room behind the church’s main altar. The boy dumped his book bag in the corner by the door.
Ignoring the latecomer, Tom brought forth a cylindrical metal canister as big as a Cain’s potato chips can. “Here it is,” he said with the air of serious effort he gave all his undertakings.
“Dave, c’mon,” Rick said in a high-pitched voice, finally acknowledging the third boy, who served as secretary of the altar boys. Rick’s dark hair was slicked down, a cotton ball wedged into one ear against a chronic earache. “We found the hosts,” he squeaked.
Dave had taken off his jacket and was searching the cassocks hanging from a long rack against the outer wall for one big enough to cover his long legs.
“You ever eat the hosts?” Tom asked Dave as he pried the lid off the container.
“Are you crazy. Where’s Monsignor O'Connell?” Dave had perhaps a deeper respect for the grandfatherly priest. After all, had not the monsignor once taught him a law of the universe?
On that particular Saturday about a year earlier, Monsignor O'Connell had asked Dave to go with him into the school on some errand. The door was locked and the monsignor took a small key ring out of his pocket. There were two keys on the ring. As the priest slipped the first key into the lock he turned to the young boy and whispered it was a law of the universe that if you had two keys and one lock, and you didn’t know which key fit, the first key you put into the lock will always – always – be the wrong one. As if there could be any doubt about something Monsignor O'Connell said, sure enough on that afternoon the first key would not turn the lock on the school door and the priest had to use the second key to open it.
Dave also knew he had something in common with the elderly cleric. Both had slightly crooked lower front incisors, perhaps not pronounced enough back in the 1960s to warrant the expense of corrective braces, but crooked nonetheless and in precisely the same way. The monsignor’s lower teeth were noticeable to an altar boy kneeling close to the altar when the church leader prayed the Mass. The boy did not know what significance to attach to that shared orthodontic peculiarity but felt it conferred on him a kinship with the revered priest.
“Don’t worry,” Rick was chirping, “When I went to the rectory to get the key, Father Morgan told me Monsignor O'Connell wasn’t feeling too good and would be about 15 minutes late.”
“Mass is going to be late?” Dave said aloud, trying to imagine the consequences of such an unimaginable disaster.
Tom was already crunching away at the hosts, in his typical self-absorbed manner. He passed a handful to Rick. Dave approached them slowly. It was nearly half past six, the time Mass was scheduled to begin. Dave had walked half a mile to the church and hadn’t eaten anything that morning but any natural hunger the 13-year-old boy might have felt was suppressed by a sense of sacrilege. Meanwhile his peers were munching loudly.
Dave came close and looked into the canister. Thousands of the thin white wafers – like a pile of giant fish scales – glistened, eerily translucent. The smell reminded him of that part of the Mass when the hosts were distributed.
“Try some,” Tom urged.
Without warning, the door to the sacristy – the priests entrance – opened and shut, and scuffling footsteps headed toward them. Tom quickly shoved the can back into the cupboard, banging the doors closed while Rick walked swiftly past Dave toward the far end of the long room where the cassocks were hanging. Both Tom and Rick had mouthfuls of hosts they were desperately chewing and in a panic to swallow. But those dry wafers, which the boys had been taught became the actual body of Christ, tended to stick to the roof of your mouth. During the Mass you could kneel and pray for a good minute waiting for a single host to dissolve in your mouth – you were taught not to chew. It was clear an entire kisser full of those hosts was not going down without a struggle.
“Gosh, we’re late today.” It was Gary who had come in through the priests doorway. He was the fourth and final server to arrive for Mass. “Where is Monsignor O'Connell?”
“We all thought you were him,” Dave said. Tom concurred with his eyes as he turned to face his classmates, his bulging jaws still working on the hosts. Rick reappeared with his silly smile and with his black-framed glasses off center. He raised his hands chest high, palms out, to punctuate the scare Gary had given them. Tom went back to the cupboard, finally able to speak. “Look, we were eating the hosts.”
Gary trudged past them toward the cassocks. “I’ve done that,” he muttered. Gary was treasurer of the altar boys. He hung up his pea coat and grabbed a cassock. “It’s OK. They’re not blessed yet.”