The seats in the church loft were boarded beds filled with human cages with makeshift heads. The cages clasped their hands, whisked lint from their ties, eyed their neighbor’s wives. It was 1975. The forms made a rhythm of triangles standing, kneeling, then sitting. And with these triangles mingled the sound of a chain chinking as the priest strode along with wide sweeping strokes releasing puffs of smoke from a canter. An altar boy carrying two tall candles chanted along with the priest and followed behind.
The priest worked his way down the aisle to the front row and then turned and continued his incantations toward the back, finally going up to the loft and down. Then with a wave of his hand he took a position at the back of the congregation and began singing a psalm before proceeding down the aisle toward the altar with the big pipe organ bellowing from the balcony. The pipe organ vibrated the seat where Mrs. Riddle was bouncing a little girl holding a rattle. The little girl began looking around at the people who had risen around her and also felt the excitement of a group acting in unison.
“Grandma, why is everyone standing?”
“So they can sing.”
“But not everybody is singing, grandma.”
“Well, they don’t have to if they don’t want to.”
“Then why are they standing?”
“To show respect.”
“What is respect?”
Mrs. Grundle turned to give a stare to Mrs. Riddle and then turned back to a weak voiced harmony.
“When others give you your space to deal with your own affairs” said Mrs. Riddle.
The little girl crinkled her nose and frowned with incomprehension. “Huh?”
“Never mind dear. Oh sorry,” Mrs. Riddle said to Ralph, an adolescent she recognized who usually sat down in front near the altar with his parents.
“Oh, I am just clumsy” said Ralph, who had tripped over the woman’s bag under the pew.
“That” said Mrs. Riddle to the little girl “is respect.” The little girl’s face had a warm look of confusion that showed she still didn’t understand, but she did know that the older boy was nice.
Ralph watched the crowd below as though the movements of each were part of the whole, seeing the same fidgeting mannerisms among various in the crowd. Some showed a self conscious look like a building trying to chase away the eyes of others from observing their contents, while others seemed to deliberate their mannerisms and gestures, trying to draw attention to themselves.
The priest was father Mazzilli, a scarecrow with hairy arms, bushy eyebrows and glowering eyes. Father Mazzilli never wore a hat even in the rain. He seemed proud of his bald head that made him resemble a monk. He looked around with slow measured dignity and a solemn look that marked the occasion of the crucifixion of the savior as the congregation took their seats. Ralph looked around. There was Pattie with her cute arms and Mrs. Clifton in a magnificent pink dress. Ralph looked at the stained glass windows where siennas and crimsons, yellows and ochres shimmered in the flickering light of the candles that lined the aisle in front of them. And then he looked back at Mrs. Clifton’s gleaming pink dress. From Mrs. Clifton Ralph watched the priest kiss the cloth on the altar. The priest stood, took a napkin from somewhere under his robe, dabbed at the cloth where he kissed it and then dabbed at his cheek.
Ralph saw his father give a hasty and icy glance up towards the loft. Ralph knew his father hadn’t looked long enough to see exactly where he was sitting, but the look was meant to show disapproval and Ralph knew it was meant for him. His father stiffly sat in a blue suit from the salvation army minus a tie. A working man would wear a suit but not a tie. His contemptuous eyes menacingly averted the eyes of others.
“What’s the matter, don’t you want to sit with us?” his father barked when Ralph stuck his head between the front seats and asked if he could sit by himself at mass.
“No,” Ralph said defensively.
“What do you need to sit by yourself for, huh? You ashamed of us or something?”
“No, I just wanted to see what it’s like to sit by myself once.”
“Well, why do you want to do that?” his mother asked.
“I don’t know…”
“You just want to go off with your cousin and horse around” barked his father. Ralph never talked to his cousin. He didn’t like him. He was too bossy and wasn’t interested in anything Ralph did or thought. Ralph wanted to tell his dad he was stupid to say something like that, but let it go, knowing there would always be an opportunity to fight with his dad later in the day. Every day brought the same assertions and guilt associations from his father. Ralph was always guilty of something and should be ashamed of himself for not doing what he was supposed to do. He had to wait until he was an adult before he was allowed to think “whatever he wanted to.” It was true that he was lazy and scatterbrained, and his parents already accused him of taking drugs. But although he had tried pot a couple times it had given him a headache. He was a lethargic boy with an active imagination, but no drive to complete anything he started. He lacked fortitude in industry and in his father’s eyes was a dreamer. His father had seen the type many times. He was never going to amount to a damn thing. Meaning he wouldn’t have a family or a house, would count on the handouts of others, would do whatever he wanted and thought whatever he wanted, changing his mind whenever convenient to suit himself.
Ralph’s mother was a severe woman when it came to faith. Nuns, priests and cranky monsignors instilled in her the shame and guilt that chained her will. She would be redeemed by producing a son who would become a priest. It was a scheme that Ralph resisted severely. He was already aware of the austere organizational interpretation of things spiritual, guided by counsel of degrees through prayer and penitence. A noble and humble way to become mature, but not for Ralph. Ralph was interested in learning things, and wanted to know about himself, who he was, why he existed, and toward what end was his existence. If god had intended him to do something why bother thinking about it as if he had a decision? Since he wanted to decide for himself, the church, and his parents taught him he was like Adam in the Garden of Eden. He already knew he wanted to be free to study all religions, and that by gaining his liberty he would be able to escape the judgments of men who claimed authority between him and god, including his parents. He had always fell to snickering and laughing in the confessional and during rosary. His mother’s was a deterministic thinking of endurance through asceticism. The ladder to heaven was rung with confession, prayer, petition, and creed. Her answer was to tell her son to talk to a priest whenever he began asking irritating questions. Ralph asked “Why am I guilty of an original sin when I had nothing to do with my coming into existence?” It was an answer the priest was not in a mood to give, so he growled at the boy “would you rather not be living?”
Ralph looked around at each of the ten large stained glass windows, five on each side of the church facing each other, and at the passages of the crucifixion depicted on them. Christ bearing his cross as a couple, Ralph’s parents, stabbed at him with sticks. There was a woman, Mrs. Grundle, frowning at Jesus as he walked past with his head down and bleeding. “Let us pray” the priest rumbled from the altar. Ralph, like many others in the balcony slid to the the front of the pew instead of kneeling. There was a moment of silence. “All rise.” Ralph stood up, watching the crowd below make a haphazard wave as everyone stood up. He looked up at Christ on the cross above the outstretched arms of the priest, nestled in the rising smoke from the canter on the altar. An orange glow from a light in the parking lot through the stained glass window splattered the savior’s chest. Ralph could swear he saw the chest move up and down as though it were trying to breath.