Note: This little piece is actually a prequel to my unpublished novel "Slow Dancin'." The book is narrated by one Francis X. "Nipper" Clarity and tells of his amazing summer in the fictional neighborhood of Park Terrace. This story takes place the previous Yuletide, Nip's seventh-grade year at St. Dymphna's School.
Mouse Maraglino was on the phone. "Hey, Nip, we got Midnight Mass."
I said, "Cool." Awesome had not yet been invented.
The midnight special was the plum job for altar boys at St. D's. Getting the nod as seventh graders was a major plus in our strata of grammar school. Sister Wiltrudis even congratulated us on the last day of school before the Yule break. "Now, you boys will do our grade proud up there on the altar. Make sure your surplices are sparkling white and sharp. Better yet, I'll do them at the convent and you can pick them up before Mass."
The Good Sisters had all sorts of impedimenta for the maintenance of their own habits, so we made sure to drop off the white overgarments in plenty of time.
Of course, the major bennie was getting to stay up late.
Mouse, Clarence Duffy, Maggot Nimments and myself would be observing Mass. This meant we sat (and stood and knelt, in true RC fashion) in a side pew on the altar, pretty much doing nothing until Communion, when we had to jump into service.
Eighth graders Seamus "Iodine" Connolly and Paddy Finnerty would be assisting the actual service.
I thought this could be good. Iodine was the self-appointed King of Trouble at St. D's. Some of his escapades in the boys' lav were legendary.
It was unfortunate that our pastor, Father Socks Malloy, would not be celebrating the Mass. He had been called out of town to visit an ill relative, so we were stuck with his scowling assistant, the evil Father Bundock. Nobody in the parish cared for him. The old Irish biddies had taken to avoiding his Masses due to his jowly Hungarian accent, sour demeanor and long-winded sermons. The cleric also had two dogs who snuggled with visitors and snarled at their master.
At home, the atmosphere was decidedly not of the Rockwellian variety. My dad, once again, was somber. It was the second Christmas we would be without Mom. In earlier years, I remember our house being full of Park Terrace folks after Midnight Mass, a Clarity tradition.
Gramma Nell came over every day, tidying up an already-neat house. She wasn't our grandmother (or anyone else's, as far as we knew). She was an older woman who lived right behind us. But I think she spent more time at our house than hers. It was easy to find her at the kitchen table, usually accompanied by a tot of Four Roses and always a pack of Philip Morris Commanders and a Zippo. A sprightly lady, she was our friend, our ersatz mother and minder of my younger brother, Shiggie, who often needed minding.
I talked to her about Dad.
"It's all about the party," she said. "He can't bring himself to have one, since your mother ..." Her voice trailed off.
"C'mon, Gramma. You must have some ideas. We've got to cheer him up."
"Okay, we'll see. Shiggie, stop that!" He was systematically applying mucoid crusts to the bottom of the kitchen table.
I shared my views with Mouse as I was up on the Avenue one day, having lunch at his parents' restaurant. We turned to his older brother, Bucky.
Bucky said, "Yeah. I remember going to that party. But I can see your Dad's point." After some thought, he said, "I'll talk to Nell." Bucky was only eighteen but somehow held the respect of the entire neighborhood. Even at my age, I knew he was a guy who got things done.
On Christmas Eve, my father put up the tree after work, a Clarity tradition. Shiggie, Nell and I ate grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwiches in the kitchen while Dad affixed the lights, big fat Nomas. No one was allowed in the living room during this precise architectural festooning. Finally, he opened the door so that we could enter and adorn the spruce with ornaments and tinsel that Shiggie would throw onto the tree every year, while chewing on a metal strand or two.
After the tree, my father said, "Well, since Nip is serving the midnight, we might as well go, Shiggie."
My brother beamed. Gramma Nell winked at me.
Church was only two blocks away. I trudged up the hill early, since I had to pick up my surplice and then get busy readying the altar. In the altar boys' room, just off the sacristy, we got suited up. Iodine was in charge, barking out orders.
He regarded Maggot Nimmets closely. The son of a garbage man, Maggot was easily the most slovenly kid in the whole school. Tonight was no exception.
"Jesus H. Kee-rist, Maggot," said Iodine. "What's that on your surplice?"
"Mustard," said Maggot sheepishly. "Y' see, we had some keilbasa earlier an' ..."
"If Sister Wilt sees that, she's gonna have a shitfit. So stay here; don't go out and light the candles. Nipper and Mouse will." With that, he removed a silvery flask from his pocket and took a big swig.
"It's just altar wine," he said. "Ain't been blessed yet."
We were lucky Father Bundock didn't notice any of this foofaraw. He was busy with the two younger priests who came in to assist. He was hectoring them the way he did us, which was edifying.
Of course, the church was packed. As usual, The Prez (Mr. Przybylinksi, a local plumber and semi-talented) started the fray by splatting out the first notes of "Joy to the World" from his aerie in the choir loft. It sounded akin to the actual song; this was a success. One year, The Prez had had a few too many egg nogs before Mass. The resultant sound was one of shrill ovine bleating. Or worse.
We all got to our assigned places. Duffy was the first kid to start. He had spotted Butts McArdle, Missy Sfogliatelle and Mary Pat O'Boy in the crowd and was intermittently sticking out his tongue at them. This would have been a tepid prank if Duffy had had a human tongue. No, he owned a huge, reptilian, almost prehensile lingual appendage. The girls cringed, which pleased all. But I got the short end of it when Mary Pat, my purported girlfriend, started shooting eye-daggers at me.
Then during the Scripture readings, Maggot started expelling noxious gases. All of us already knew he had an amazing flatulent talent. Iodine was having none of this. His face more florid than usual, he gave the "knock it off" sign to Maggot. The perp whispered to me, "It's the kielbasa. I ain't doin' it on purpose." He punctuated this sentence with another crisp fusillade.
Everything went smoothly after that. Until Communion. Two more priests materialized our of nowhere, resulting in five stations where people could receive. We observers collected our patens, designed to catch a falling host. Since the discs had now been consecrated, they were holy objects.
This didn't turn out well for Mouse. We had left Maggot back in the observer's pew, where he knelt in a fetid cloud. Just when Father Bundock, with Iodine holding the paten, got to old Mrs. McConnachie (come to think of it, she had a pretty gross tongue, too), Maggot unleashed another blast. A loud one.
The startled woman's hands flew into the air. As did Iodine's paten, which struck Father's hand, which propelled the Body and Blood of Christ skyward in a long arc. We all watched as the errant wafer soared.
And landed on Mouse's shoulder. His priest, acting smartly, simply brushed the host right onto the Mouse's paten, then took the plate back into the sacristy for what I imagine was some sort of ritual immolation.
A murder of nuns immediately ran to the alter railing, led by Sister Hugo, with Wilt and others in tow. They weren't allowed on the altar, so they shooed Mouse into the sacristy as well. I wasn't sure what happened next, but Mouse didn't return to our group.
As we retreated to our spots after our duty, I could see Father Bundock chiding Iodine. Then he took a right turn and, waiting for a safe moment, bonked Maggot over the head with his paten. "YEEOW!" screeched Maggot, which the whole church heard. That caused Bundock to come over and drag Maggot by his ear into the sacristy.
I was thankful when Mass drew to a close. The Prez treated everyone to "O Come All Ye Faithful" for his final tune, drowning out a diffident choir.
Mouse was already in his civvies; there was no sign of Maggot. Mouse told me, "Jeeze, I tried to take off my surplice, and the nuns went mental. The priest took it off and put it in a bag for the sisters. Then Sister Wilt made me wash my hands, like five times."
Instead of heading to the Avenue and his folks' restaurant (the family lived in a warren of rooms above the eatery), Mouse walked with me.
"Where're going?" I said.
"I'm gonna walk ya home," said Mouse.
The cars were queuing up on my block of Midfield Avenue. We entered through the back door; there was already a crowd in the kitchen. Gramma Nell, wearing a Santa hat, hugged and kissed us both, a rare occurrence for her. My father sat at the table, all smiles. Bucky Maraglino had brought a tray of baked ziti. Other foodstuffs threatened to collapse the table.
Even Iodine was there along with his dad, Big Lou Connelly, the local precinct commander. He and my father were friends. Dinty Carmody, another one of my father's pals, worked at the Rheingold distributor and was hauling in cases of beer.
Even Mary Pat stopped by. In my first-ever attempt at a Christmas gift for a girl (Bucky advised me, "Never get perfume for a chick unless you know exactly the kind to get."), I went up to Helen Antonio's Card Shoppe on the Avenue and got her personalized stationery. She was always passing me notes. She gave me a comb-and-brush set.
"Gwan, kisser," shouted Nell. I could see Gramma had been hitting the Four Roses. And I did, smack on the lips, resulting in backslaps for me,plenty of guffaws and a red-faced Mary Pat O'Boy. When I walked her home, just around the corner, she gave me a kiss, for real. I think it was my turn to blush.
Back at the ranch. Mouse, Iodine, Shiggie and a couple of other kids hung out upstairs. Iodine was passing his flask of altar wine around. The adults really began whooping it up, bellowing carols in indeterminate keys.
Shiggie fell asleep, and the others had to go. I could smell coffee, the signal that the party was winding down. Soon, only Buck, Dad, Gramma Nell and myself sat in the kitchen. "Here, Nip," said my father. "You can try some of this. It's mulled wine." He poured me a small tot, which I was careful to drink slowly.
Dad smiled, "This was great. Probably your doing, Nell."
Gramma, her hat tremendously askew, took a good slug of bourbon and said, "Bucky frizzit palumph."
Bucky just shrugged and said his good-byes. Nell went into the living room and managed to find the couch.
Dad put his hand on my shoulder. "This is already a wonderful Christmas, Nip. Thank you."
As I drifted off, a little abuzz from the wine, I thought of the clear, starry night, the promise of snow, Baby Jesus and the busses of my best girl.
And Dad was right. It was a wonderful Christmas.