It was because of Penny’s, a twenty-four hour diner across the street from the rectory, that Father Ben was still asleep. He was folded comfortably in the corner of his twin bed, dressed in the same clerical get-up he fell asleep in hours prior and smelling of pie and cheddar cheese. The fresh typescript of his sermon lay on the floor, just polished at the bottom of a bottomless cup of coffee. It was the best homily of his budding career, and it would have come to rapturous applause if only he were awake enough to deliver it.
The phone rang, and, thinking it was his alarm clock, Father Ben shoved it off the nightstand. The ringing ceased, but the urgent cries of a Mexican woman began.
Father Ben intoned a piece of his dream.
“Padre! Help me!”
Finally he picked the strange alarm clock up and spoke to it. “Yes…hello.”
“Padre Benjamin, help! I cannot come to mass this morning!”
“There is no mass this morning.” He sunk with the phone back into his pillows.
“Yes, ten-thirty mass.”
“No, no, today is…. What day is today?”
“What? What time is it now?”
Before Father Ben threw the phone across the room and dashed down the stairs, across the garden, and into the pulpit, the voice on the other end implored just two more minutes of his tardiness.
“Padre, you must help me.”
The procession was lined in the hall to the classrooms, every child in his or her place, when the greeter gave the cue to the usher, and the usher to the reader, and all the way down the rota until a quiet knock was given on the side doors, the bells rang, and the procession entered. Customarily, the rector’s was the first face seen, his hand on the shoulder of a preening child. But the child, in this case, entered alone.
The congregation sat back and observed the entering choristers, each head taller than the last. There were more children in the procession than there were adults in the pews. A boy in the middle paraded his faith, hoping to be seen as religious with furrowed brows and slipping glasses. A girl in the back threw her long, thick hair behind her to show off her perfectly shaped singing mouth. Distinct cliques of twos and threes passed gossip up the line. The procession flooded the aisles, and just before the youngest members left for religious education—only to return in time for the Eucharist and coffee hour—Father Ben excused his way into the sanctuary.
His hair was still under the impression a pillow was near and splayed out on one side. The ends of his oxford cloth came out of his fly. Toothpaste filled the corners of his lips. He squeezed up beside the procession leader, but she, and all the children behind her, promptly left. The congregation was riveted by his Sponge Bob slippers.
Rather than take his seat beside the altar and listen to the lessons, Father Ben stood still and gave a nervous scan over the heads. The musical director smoothed things over with a speedy launch into an old favorite, pulling everyone out of their confusion and into their hymnals. The diversion was good enough for Pat and her son Peter, who had both come in late, to settle in unnoticed–unnoticed, that is, until it became clear Father Ben was running towards them.
Peter was an intensely small boy. Though no older or younger than the children in the middle of the procession, he entered eye-level with the tops of the pews. His blond bobble looked as though a broken bowl had been used to form his hair. His bangs began normally enough on the left then jutted down in an extreme angle to the right, covering his eye. He did not object to the barber, being only dimly aware that he could. He let the scissors do what they wanted.
The greeter did not allow latecomers to enter the sanctuary until the procession was over, so Pat, proud owner of a bushy new perm, killed time brushing up on her theology, “Anglo-Catholic Real Presence,” with complimentary brochures. She stuffed them into her fanny pack as quickly as she could when Father Ben kneeled in front of her. Over the robust singing of the baritone beside him, Peter could hear none of Father Ben’s obviously grave remarks, and once the hymn came to the end of its sixteenth refrain, the rector gave a squeeze to Pat’s arm and stepped away.
The crowd took their seats, and Father Ben the pulpit. Realizing he had left on his bed what was possibly the best homily he had written since that first competitive week at Divinity, Father Ben took a swig of air and winged it for what was to be the shortest homily delivered in the history of St. Marge.
Throughout the service, Pat leaned down to Peter and attempted to explain the conversation she had with Father Ben. But there were countless interruptions, and the clatter of kneelers hitting the floor finally drowned her out completely. As Father Ben broke the bread and distributed it to the visiting clergy, Pat bit her nails. A line of sweat marched down her forehead. Any outside observer, including Peter, would have thought she had only fifteen seconds to diffuse a bomb beneath the crucifix.
“Everything will be revealed” was the cue for the first pew to file out for their bread. When they were through, the next pew followed, and so on. Soon, after everyone in front of them was reeling in the ecstasy of their one drop of wine that week, it was Pat and Peter’s turn. “Come on, go, go!” Pat said, pushing Peter down the aisle. He was confused, but not alarmed. After a lifetime of single file lines, this was merely a new flow to go with.
At the fence between congregants and clergy, they kneeled together. Father Ben mumbled the usual, though he too was sweating. He gave Pat a bit of crust as if he were offering a secret, and Pat swallowed as if she already understood. But instead of rising and rejoining the line, Pat remained, her hands clasped, staring at Peter. His bit of bread, this one from the middle of the loaf, pale and airy, with wide caves running through it, was placed in his hand. Peter put the bread in his mouth and looked up to the deacon carrying the wine. As she came forward with her own mumbles, Pat took Peter by the neck, put one hand in front of his mouth, and with the other slapped the back of his head. The bread popped out, undisturbed, onto her palm.
“Where are we going?” asked Peter.
Pat was driving with an abandon he had never seen, cutting corners, running red lights. He wondered if it was possible to be kidnapped by one’s own mother.
After “Peace be with you” Pat skipped down the steps outside the church. She led Peter to the car by the scruff of his neck and bolted out the parking lot, the bread deposited safely in her pocket. Peter eyed it as his mother careened across town.
“Where we always go,” she said.
The Taco Bell parking lot was empty and Peter wondered if it was even open. They had never been there that early.
The tables were still gleaming from last night’s wipe down. It was as cold as ever, though the dance music wasn’t on yet. The woman in the headscarf, who was usually confined to the kitchen, stood on a table trying to slide a peeling advertisement back onto the window. With a strong reach her cardigan slipped above her waist and she struggled, balancing on one foot, to cover her lower back with one hand and preserve the Ninety-Nine Cent Taco sign with the other.
Pat wound her way through the railings in front of the cash register, which would have, on a normal day, made her feel a bit ridiculous. Peter did not enter the maze, but hung back at the door, and watched.
His mother’s mysterious rush was interrupted by the absence of a cashier. Pat tapped the bulge in her pocket and looked at the menu as she waited, even considered changing her usual. She noticed the television monitor above the drive-through window. Hoping she wasn’t the only one who could see it, she waved at the security camera, then put her palms together as if in prayer. Still, no one came out and Pat contented herself to try a few quarters on the Missing Children coin game beside the register.
Peter noticed the monitor too and saw himself standing in front of the number 3’6’’ on the notched strip by the door. Peering further into the grainy image, he could just make out, on the other side of the trashcan, the shape of a child. It was sitting at a booth, and upon close inspection of the back of its head, Peter determined it was a girl. Just as he was about to creep around the trashcan to get a better look at the person capable of matching Taco Bell’s eerie silence, a small Mexican woman came running out from the walk-in refrigerator.
“I so sorry!” she said. “We have accident with toys!” A bag of Jonas Brothers was caught around her ankle. “You are Pat? Pat?”
“Yes,” said Pat. “From St. Marge. Are you Alba?”
“Sí, sí. Do you have it?”
Pat reached into her pocket and pulled out the bread.
Alba put her hand on her heart and let out an enormous sigh. “Sancta Maria!”
“I’m glad we could do this for you.”
“I never work Sundays,” she said, still tragically worked up. “I hate it. This Sunday they made me.”
Pat shook her head disapprovingly.
“I told Juliet her grandmother could take her to church. She say no, she want to stay with me. I told her I had to work. She say she wouldn’t go without me. We have big fight.”
Pat tried to remember a time she fought with Peter, but couldn’t. “Where is she?”
It looked to Peter like Alba was pointing at him. He backed up into the measuring tape.
Pat turned around and, without warning, took the bread out of her pocket and threw it to him. It was a gutsy move on Pat’s part, knowing full well that Peter had only ever heard the words “Good try!” after attempting a catch. The bread flew over the railings with all the force of his mother’s and Alba’s combined prayers that he would catch it. He did.
“Right there,” said Pat, pointing. “Give it to her!”
Peter pulled himself onto his tiptoes to get a good look over the trashcan. Failing, he stepped around it and approached the rather sizable child. Bright plastic pins decorated her long, dark braids, over which a set of headphones pumped the New Kids on the Block—a fifty-cent Good Will cassette—into her ears. The table was covered with markers spilling out of a marked-up Ziploc bag. She was exhausting the possibilities of an old coloring book.
“Give it to her!” said Pat, frustrated Peter did not already understand.
But Cher finally came on over the speakers and Peter could not comprehend his orders. He lifted the bread. “This?” he said.
Alba clasped her hands and mouthed “please.”
The door opened and a handsome family of four walked in, gussied and hungry and tipsy from the wine. The post-church families had made it out of coffee hour. The mother and father stood behind Pat at the register while the son and daughter ran to the back booth, indifferent to the woman in the headscarf standing on their table, who squealed like an elephant at the sight of mice and moved a booth over.
Pat was reluctant to give up her space beside Alba. The mother and father were standing there for legitimate reasons but it was hard to imagine those were more important than hers. They would have to wait.
Peter came up to the edge of the table, bread in hand. Juliet did not appear to notice him, or if she did, she did not consider him a valid replacement for her coloring. She kept on scribbling.
Another family entered, of a different sect altogether. They had no khakis but long denim shorts and camouflage t-shirts. The children were taller than the parents and talked about ordering twice as much food.
A boy Peter’s age came in wearing a T-ball uniform, which Peter knew meant there were more to follow. Fourteen kids in stretch-pants and caps, their coaches and parents, lined behind the camouflaged teenagers at the counter, every child in his or her place.
Where Peter was confused at first he was now a bit frightened. The people behind him further separated his understanding from his mother’s wishes. He knew that he was put in front of this girl. He knew he had some bread in his hands. The only possible outcome of these two pieces of information, and the action that would bring this whole strange business to a close, was to hold out his hand. He held out his hand.
A station wagon pulled up outside the window. At first it tried to merge into the drive-thru lane, but a few honks forced it to park. Juliet did not notice the honks or the outstretched hand, which remained outstretched while Peter’s attention was diverted.
A boy hopped out of the back seat of the station wagon. He had a thick coating of freckles over his face and red, Chef Boyardee stains around his mouth. The boy was fast, and his mother cruelly slow in removing herself from the driver’s seat. He danced and jittered beside the car as if she were the burden of a full bladder set to burst. And when the locking beep finally beeped, it was his shotgun cue to bolt at the Taco Bell doors. He ran past the girls sauntering to the door in their sleepover pants and flew inside.
Peter watched him swing around the railings, playing chicken with the customers’ legs. Shoving his way to the front, he tried to push the quarter game over the counter. He shouted numbers back at the kitchen. He attempted to swipe the sour cream gun, and when someone told him to stop, he ran over to the soda fountain, licked his finger, and stuck it up the Pepsi.
Peter was transfixed, and when the ADD boy caught him staring, Peter rushed his eyes back to his hand, which was empty. Juliet was still coloring but chewing now, and when she was finished she took a swig of her soda. She did not say “Thank you,” smile, or even turn off her music. She swallowed and returned to her coloring.
Peter turned back to his mother, who was still behind the impatient crowd. She lifted a very proud thumbs-up above the other heads. Alba said a short prayer under her breath and started to work the line.
Soon Pat and Peter could slide into their own booth. Pat pulled the church brochures from her bag––the Mexican Pizza tasted best with reading material–and Peter read the jokes on the back of the sauce packets. Although he was never allowed to use them on his food (Pat forbade it, saying even Mild was Fire and Fire would make his tongue hurt) he thought they might be good on their own as play things, a little skateboard for your fingers when your tacos were gone. Peter picked up eight, seven Milds and a Fire, precisely the amount he saw the ADD boy stuff into his pockets.
“Good Gosh!” said Pat. A piece of Mexican Pizza slid out of her mouth. She pointed to the picture on her brochure of the hands holding up the wafer. “We forgot about you!”
She sat back and shifted her eyes nervously around the table. “Should we—we have to call Father Ben!” She dove into her purse for her cell phone. Peter heard the dialing on the other end and eventually Father Ben’s startled greeting.
“Father Ben!” said Pat. “You have to come and consecrate something!”
Peter smiled and closed his fingers around the Fire packet in his palm.