Fraction Rite

Benjie hurried across the lobby to the church’s front doors, the keys readied between his fingers. It was still dawn, and the lobby was dim. But he saw the old man’s silhouette through the doors’ glass panes. He seemed larger than usual, taller, and close to the glass, almost pressed against it. As Benjie neared the doors, he could make out the white of the man’s eyes, looking into the lobby, searching for him.

The man entered before Benjie could unlock all the doors’ latches. Once inside, the man didn’t greet him or even nod. As though forgetting Benjie’s promptness each Sunday before, the man brushed past him, walked to the font of holy water, and crossed himself.

Benjie knew he was late. When he started the sacristan job at Saint Jude’s that summer, he’d open the church doors for Sunday Mass ten, twenty minutes early. But that Sunday he’d slept through his alarm. He hadn’t gotten a good night’s rest since Tuesday, when he last saw Steven at school.

Steven was the youngest member of Saint Jude’s choir and, like Benjie, a junior at Loyola, the local all-boys Catholic high school. That past Monday, the first day of the fall term, a P.E. instructor prepping for a morning class caught Steven kissing a boy from another school in Steven’s car, parked near the football field. Benjie didn’t know who the other boy was. But he knew that Steven was promptly sent home for the day and that, although Steven returned that Tuesday, no one had seen him since. The rumor was Steven’s parents had enrolled him at a public school across town.

As the old man proceeded into the nave, Benjie’s temples pulsed. An annoyance, almost an anger, rose in him. But, when he followed the man, watched him go to the same pew he always occupied, a calm came over Benjie. He slowed his steps and walked quietly past the man, who, cast in yellows, greens, and reds from the stained glass above, raised his clasped hands to his forehead and disappeared into prayer.

Growing up, Benjie arrived early to the chapel on base each Sunday with his sister and parents. He would kneel next to them, feel a connection with them, with others there each week, reciting the same prayers, no matter the base his family was on, no matter the country they were in. In Guam, where his family had been stationed the longest, he’d sneak into the base chapel after school whenever he made a new friend. He’d stand among the familiar paintings and statues, light a votive candle, and pray that Ligaya, Denise, Nick wouldn’t get re-stationed like the others before them. And afterwards, each time, he’d feel guilty for praying for something so selfish and, before leaving, donate his next day’s lunch money.

Benjie continued toward the head of the church. He passed the altar with its tall, marble table and gilded tabernacle box. He then rounded the altar’s back wall to the sacristy. The concealed room, in contrast to the nave, was windowless and sparsely-furnished. It stretched the length of the altar wall with entrances on each side. As a child, unaware of such rooms, he’d watch people, plain-clothed and empty-handed, disappear behind one end of the altar wall and reappear on the other priests and altar servers, robed and carrying books, candles, and crosses.

Benjie made his way to the storage closet at the far end of the sacristy. The calm from moments before lingered as he began his preparations for Mass. Through its smells of wax and incense, he took inventory of the closet — boxes of votive candles, bottles of wine, a plastic bin of Communion wafers, a crystal carafe. With less time to prepare that morning, he combined tasks, tucking prayer books under his arm while collecting chalices and bowls in his hands.

When he reemerged from the storage closet, he saw an altar server had arrived. She stood robed in a small recess at the other end of the sacristy, where the servers’ garments hung. He’d seen the server before. Her name was Beth, he believed. Benjie’s older sister, Angelica, also had been an altar server. At a few churches where they’d been stationed, she led the processions down the aisle, held up the prayer books for the priest to read during Mass. Benjie remembered the attention, reverence, Angelica gave to her server’s alb. The way she’d smooth the gown’s cloth with her hands, removing any wrinkles. The way she carefully chose the gown’s length so that only the tips of her closed toe shoes showed as she walked. Beth’s alb, however, seemed long, reaching the floor. It was only as she stepped toward Benjie, knotting the cincture around her waist, that he saw a sandaled foot peek out from under the base of her long white gown.

Dress shoes were one of the new rules Father Cleary had instituted for altar servers since becoming pastor.

“Father doesn’t trust youth,” Auntie Deling had warned Benjie. “He thinks they’re not professional, not reliable.”

Benjie’s aunt had gotten him the job at Saint Jude’s when his family settled in Sacramento that summer, near McClellan Air Force Base. She attended Father’s weekly prayer group.

“Just be invisible,” she told him. “Make no mistakes, and you’ll be fine.”

Beth froze, as though she heard something, then scurried back toward the server garments, but not before Father Cleary entered from the nave. Father was looking toward the floor, deep in thought. Likely once taller and his shoulders once broader, Father Cleary still towered over many. Yet, whenever Benjie would see Father Cleary like this, a heaviness to his head, a slight hunch in his neck, it made the priest, for a moment, seem somehow smaller, softer. That morning, he found himself watching Father more intently, wondering what the priest was thinking in these moments. Was he thinking about Mass, a prayer? Or maybe about someone, from his previous parish, or sometime before that.

Beth’s quick movement seemed to wake Father. His eyes moved across her, agitated, and his steps, at first light, contemplative, now lumbered toward the vestment rack. Benjie stepped out of the priest’s path, kept away, as he’d done the past three months. He’d heeded all of Auntie Deling’s advice. He also took Angelica’s suggestion to dress how he would at Loyola in the fall. No jeans or sandals. Always a collared shirt, clean shaven. Angelica had recommended this as she helped him and their parents move to Sacramento that summer. She was on break from Catholic University in DC. She’d always wanted to be a sacristan, but every time there’d be an opening at a local church, their family would be re-stationed.

“It’s an important role,” she said, “respectable. You’re the one who really makes Mass run.”

Benjie entered the nave to a small table at the base of the altar on which he arranged the empty bowls and glass chalices for Communion. On the opposite side of the altar, members of the chamber choir arrived, most of them older, he’d figured parents or grandparents of children at Saint Jude’s grade school. He didn’t, however, see Steven among them. He wondered if word had spread from Loyola to Saint Jude’s, if they’d asked Steven to leave the choir.

The prayer books still tucked under his arm, Benjie tried to line the chalices carefully and stack the bowls neatly, but he found himself watching the choir members as they tuned their guitars and warmed up with the piano, like the first Sunday he saw Steven. Steven had worn the same khaki pants, white collared shirt, and matching mustard tie as the other male singers. It might have been how the tie brought out the brown in Steven’s dark eyes, how he nervously bent the pages of his hymnal between songs, or how his microphone kept dropping away from his mouth, but that first Sunday Benjie had felt a closeness with Steven, one he hadn’t felt for someone before. A desire to be near him, to offer him a new hymnal, tighten his microphone stand.

Benjie’s hand knocked the end of a chalice, sending it over the edge of the table onto the tile floor. The glass chalice somehow didn’t shatter. It only cracked, but the clang echoed through the nave. Members of the choir glanced at him. Heads lifted from their pews, mid-prayer. His face warmed. Seen, exposed, he quickly picked up the chalice and placed the prayer books, in their order of use, on the altar server’s seat near the small table. He then hurried back to the sacristy.

Father Cleary was fully robed. He leant against the rear counter, facing the sacristy entrance with his arms folded across his chest, as if waiting for Benjie. Benjie knew he must have heard the sound. He averted his eyes and held the cracked chalice at his side, away from Father’s view. As he made his way, calmly, casually, to the storage closet, he felt the priest watching him. When Benjie emerged from the closet, however, the new chalice in hand, Father Cleary’s back was to him. The priest bent over the counter and seemed to be reviewing papers, perhaps his homily.

Benjie reentered the nave, head down. His aunt’s advice repeated in his head.

Just be invisible.

Make no mistakes.

And, as though one continuous movement, without once fully raising his head, he proceeded to the small table, placed the new chalice atop it, and retreated back to the sacristy, past Father Cleary, into the storage closet.

Benjie stood before the closet shelves, short of breath. He paused, collected himself, then started to pour unblessed wafers into the large Communion bowl. But, as the pieces of bread tapped against the brass, he remembered he’d forgotten to check the tabernacle on the altar, to see how many blessed hosts remained from previous services. He began to turn, to go back to check, but he thought about the eyes that would be watching him, be aware of him. He assured himself he was okay. Every Sunday he counted a similar number of blessed hosts in the tabernacle and poured a similar number of unconsecrated wafers into the Communion bowl. Once the priest blessed those, there had always been enough hosts for Mass. So, without further thought, Benjie filled the bowl, stopping at the same level as the Sundays before, and he did the same with the unblessed wine.

He took the partially-filled carafe and bowl to a table near the lobby for procession later during Mass. He usually walked through the nave to do this, past the rows of pews and waiting congregants, but he thought again about the chalice, the attention he’d drawn. Instead, he decided to take the side hall that the priests sometimes used. The hall, like the sacristy, was hidden. It ran along the back of the church’s eastern wall, connecting the sacristy to several confessional boxes and to a small chapel used for morning weekday masses. The walkway, he also knew, contained a side door with an alternate entrance to the nave, close to the lobby.

As he walked the slender, lamp-lit hall, he thought about when his family was stationed in Okinawa and the Philippines—the time before his First Eucharist. When he’d watch the priest bless the hosts during Mass and distribute them, the number of wafers seemed endless. When he’d see his sister and parents in the aisle proceeding with the others, heads downcast, solemn, he wanted to join them, to be among them.

He set the bread and wine at the table near the lobby, next to the collection basket. The pews had begun to fill, and the choir practiced their songs. Knowing Mass would be starting soon, he returned to the side hall. Before he reached the sacristy, however, he heard the chords of the piano again. He walked back to the hall door and cracked it open to the nave, as he’d done each Communion to see Steven sing his solo. He’d watch how Steven closed his eyes to ready himself, how the right corner of Steven’s mouth curled upwards before his lips parted. He’d listen to the song’s simple, repetitive melody and to Steven’s soft yet steady voice, the way it built slowly in volume, swept over Benjie, filled him, soothed him, made him feel somehow more whole.

Benjie surveyed the choir members again, trying to locate Steven, but he wasn’t there. The choir then quieted. They adjusted their hymnals and microphone stands as though for a final time. He eased the door closed and continued to the sacristy. Entering the room, he saw Father Cleary and Beth leave through the opposite side for the commencement of the service.

***

The muffled drones of Father Cleary’s homily reverberated through the sacristy. Benjie stood at the rear counter, textbooks and notebooks from school spread across it. He’d hoped to finish his Monday homework, but as he leafed through the books’ pages, he thought again about Steven. He kept replaying the last time he saw him, on Tuesday. Classes were over, and the hall was busy as students left for home or extracurriculars. But, on the other side of the corridor, Steven walked, drifted, alone. His clothes were within dress code but ill-fitting. His face was almost expressionless. His eyes glazed, listless. Benjie found himself crossing the hall toward him. Despite attending the same church, the same school, the two had never spoken or acknowledged each other. Yet, when Steven’s eyes met his, there was a recognition in them, a momentary livening. Then just as quickly, as though catching himself, Steven’s eyes darkened, deepened into sadness, into resignation. And, before Benjie could say something, return the recognition, Steven looked forward and continued down the hall toward the exit.

Benjie’s temples began to pulse again, but unlike with the old man earlier, the feeling was less one of anger or even annoyance; it was more a kind of dread, a foreboding. He tried to focus his attention on his school work and continue his reading. Words slid before his eyes. He closed the books and headed to the side hall.

Sometimes during Mass, he would stop by the church’s chapel. A miniature version of the nave—with an altar, tabernacle, stained glass—the chapel always reminded him of the chapels he would frequent on military bases. He would sit in the silence, occasionally returning a stray hymnal or a collection envelope to a pew pocket, thinking of the cleanliness and order of the chapels he’d gone to growing up. That morning, however, as he took a seat in a pew, the calm he often felt started but did not settle. He readjusted himself in the seat, closed his eyes, tried to take in the solemnity of the space, the quiet. Yet, just as his shoulders relaxed, as he felt a release in his chest, he heard himself breathing, his heart beating. He felt the beating migrate up to his neck, his ears.

Benjie stood. He made sure the stacks of hymnals were straight, the altar clear. He ensured that there was a pencil for each batch of collection envelopes. He moved up the aisle and between pews with a fervor, almost franticness, as if the quicker, more forceful his movements the sooner everything would return to its appropriate place, to how it used to be.

He heard a rustling behind him. Beth stood at the chapel entrance. She was gripping the wicker collection basket with one hand and a wad of her robe with the other, keeping the front of the oversized garment off the ground.

“I couldn’t find you in the sacristy,” she said and lifted the basket toward him.

He paused. He drew in air through his nose, holding it for a moment to try to slow his breath. He then set down the envelopes in his hand and walked back to the sacristy with her.

As he emptied the contents of the basket into the collection safe, Beth idled behind him.

“The prayer books were out of order,” she said in a soft voice.

He locked the safe and turned toward her. Beth did not meet his eyes.

“I didn’t notice before I was already at the altar holding the book for Father,” she continued. “I just went back to get the right book. I don’t even think people noticed.”

She now looked at him and, in almost a whisper, added, “But I think Father did.”

He heard Father Cleary begin to recite a prayer. Beth heard as well.

“I thought I’d let you know,” she said, “just as a heads up.” And, as though on cue, Beth turned and exited into the nave.

He’d never done that before, placed the prayer books in the wrong order, mixed things up. He stood against the counter and ran through everything he’d done that morning before Mass, each step, rule, wondering if there was anything else he might have missed.

When he heard the choir begin to sing the Communion music, he wondered how long he’d been standing there. But, running through his preparations for Mass, the dread from earlier, before Beth had shown up, had lessened. And, although it had been replaced by confusion and irritation, this change brought him some relief.

As the music wafted through the room, he thought again about watching Communion when he was little, before he could participate. Observing his family and others lining the aisles. Being transfixed. Wondering how the priest transformed the bread into flesh and the wine into blood. How it tasted, if it tasted the same at every church. He thought about the stories Angelica would tell him when they were little, miracles she’d read about—when consecrated hosts bled, when they survived church fires, untouched. He remembered the seriousness with which she told these stories, the weight this gave her words, and how clear it was to him, even then, the significance of this part of Mass.

Out of the corner of his eye, a white-clothed figure tentatively approached the counter. Beth had returned, her eyes wide.

“They’re running out of bread,” she said.

At first he thought he misheard her, thought maybe it was still about the prayer books. “Who read?”

“Bread,” Beth repeated. “The hosts. They’re almost gone.”

When he realized what Beth was saying, he didn’t know why, but he stood still and stared at her hands. They had left her robe and now twisted the tasseled ends of her cincture.

He pictured Father Cleary standing in front of the trail of congregants, the priest’s fury building as each host he gave uncovered more of the bowl’s bottom. He recalled, how, just moments before, he’d gone over the amount of wafers he’d put into the bowl to be blessed. No less than usual.

“Were there any big services this week?” he asked her, a curtness in his voice.

“Yeah,” she said, offhandedly, as though wondering how this was relevant. “There was a wedding yesterday, pretty big. My friend served it. Her cousin got married.”

Beth peered over her shoulder at the exit to the nave, as if expecting Father to enter any second.

Benjie only covered Sunday Masses. This was why he’d always checked the blessed hosts in the tabernacle, he told himself, something Beth wouldn’t know. He thought of retreating to the chapel, to its quiet and comfort, but recalled earlier, his heavy breathing, him shoving and stacking books and envelopes. He then remembered the chapel tabernacle, it being used for weekday masses. And, without hesitation, without explaining himself to Beth, he headed toward the side hall.

Inside the chapel, he hurried to the tabernacle. He had to bend his knees to peer into the short metal box. Inside sat another Communion bowl and in it three small hosts. He removed the bowl and looked in it again, hoping he just couldn’t see the other hosts. But, in the faint chapel light, the bowl showed three quarter-sized wafers, enough Communion for three, or if halved, six congregants at most.

He walked trance-like, bowl in hand, back to the sacristy. Beth stood over the counter, preoccupied. She seemed to be reading the titles of Benjie’s textbooks. Just as he was about to tell her that they were out of blessed bread, that he didn’t know what to do, he passed the storage closet. The door was open, and atop the shelf sat the plastic bin of unblessed wafers. He slipped inside.

He removed the bin’s lid, then hesitated. He thought about Father Cleary, about what would happen if he found out, if his Auntie Deling, or his parents. He thought about Angelica, what she’d think of him. He then heard something near the door that sounded like footsteps and found himself pouring a mound of unconsecrated hosts into the bowl.

When he exited the closet, Beth was pacing the sacristy, reading one of his textbooks. As he approached her, she immediately returned the book to the counter.

Benjie acted as though he didn’t notice and raised the bowl to Beth. “From the chapel tabernacle,” he said.

Beth eased, her shoulders lowering. When she reached for the bowl, for a moment, he firmed his grip. But he released his hand, and in what seemed like a second, Beth disappeared with the bowl into the nave.

He returned to the hall and the side door. As he did, he replayed the past few moments in his head, wondering if he could have done anything differently. His hands and brow were wet, and his collar was damp.

He peered through a gap in the side door. The choir on the opposite side of the church continued to sing. Father Cleary stood centered in front of the altar before a line of waiting parishioners. The priest’s cheeks were flushed, but hosts brimmed the bowl in his hands. Rows back, waiting their turn, knelt his parents, beside them his Auntie Deling. Their elbows were propped on the back of the pew in front of them, their hands folded in prayer. A rosary wrapped around one of his aunt’s fists, its cross dangling between her arms.

Nearing the altar was a gray-haired woman. From his angle, Benjie could see only the back of her. As she approached Father Cleary, she bowed deeply, disappearing for a moment among the sea of kneeling parishioners. When she stood upright, she tilted her head back slightly, and he pictured her eyes shut and her mouth open.

The woman had accepted the wafer on her tongue, believing it sacred, trusting the priest, the Church, and—even if she didn’t know it—him. He thought about his First Communion, in Guam. How his mouth puckered when the host touched his tongue, enfolding the wafer. How he resisted chewing it—as Angelica had taught him—waited for it to dissolve, to become a part of him. How he’d felt a closeness that day, a calmness, belonging, with his sister, parents, and others processing alongside him.

The dread from earlier returned. His eyes searched the rows of pews, past his parents, his aunt, looking for Steven, hoping perhaps he was in the congregation, felt like he could return, if not to the choir maybe to Mass.

Just then the piano started to play a familiar, repetitive melody. The choir members stepped back, and standing alone was not Steven but a man, older, who he hadn’t noticed before. The man wiped his palms on his khaki pants and positioned himself close to the microphone. His voice was shaky at first but gradually grew more confident, clearer and smoother.

The floor softened below Benjie’s feet. He closed his eyes, squeezing them. He tried to imagine Steven singing. But, as he summoned that soft, steady voice, his thoughts returned to the day of his First Communion, how it seemed to be receding now with each moment, becoming more and more distant. He stood in that space between the closeness he’d once felt and what Steven’s voice brought him. And, as the music rose, he squeezed his eyes tighter and tighter, trying to stay there in that space, hold it, at least until the end of the song.

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Matthew Torralba Andrews lives in Spokane, Washington, where he is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Eastern Washington University.