Volume 24, Number 1

Listen to the Music

John Poblocki

No matter how he tried, he could not answer the question. His mind was blank, and he felt a flush of panic, confusion and desperation. Suddenly a piece of his consciousness had disappeared and was replaced with nothing. A void. He tried to grasp something, anything, that would enable him to answer, but there was nothing there. He remembered that he left his bike in the backyard, but he didn’t remember how he and his bike got there. He heard his mother’s voice, but his thoughts could not process. The question was heard. His brain’s answer was not. She was asking a simple question. His vision became surrounded with black space, his mother’s face receding in the center of a dark tunnel. Now he could see her lips moving but the sound was turned off. His face burning hot and his ears ringing like church bells, he put his head down and ran out of the kitchen, the screen door banging behind him. He stumbled to his bike and rode down the street as fast as he could pedal, his vision blurred through tears.

He rode to Paul’s house, a mile away, and waited outside. His heart was beating out of his chest, his lungs were bursting and he was drenched in perspiration. He couldn’t catch his breath. He was still trying to remember how he got from the priest’s bedroom to his house. He was feeling sick to his stomach. He sat on the curb trying to gather his strength to knock on the door. The answer to the question had to be in his mind somewhere. What happened to his brain? Thinking that hard was giving him a headache and making him dizzy. All he could remember after sitting on the bed was stepping on the kickstand when he parked his bike. He didn’t even know which way he took to get home. He didn’t remember seeing anyone on the way. The last words he heard Father say were, “Sit on my bed so you can hear the music. It’s the best place to listen to the music from the other room.” It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make any sense now. How can listening to a hi-fi system sound better from the next room? But then, the altar boy was only ten years old. What could he possibly know? He sat on the bed. He didn’t remember what the music was or how it sounded. The priest sat too close. The boy was uncomfortable and said he couldn’t stay. He remembered saying that. He didn’t remember leaving. And he couldn’t get that repulsive smell out of his nostrils or his mind. It made him gag.

He could remember entering the rectory with the priest, who seemed surprised that the parish cook was in the kitchen. He said something to her that the boy couldn’t hear and the woman, mumbling something in return, looked at the priest and then at the boy. The boy thought the woman was not happy to see the priest. Or maybe it was the boy she wasn’t happy about. Was he not supposed to be there? The priest told him to come with him, so what was her problem?

They went up the back stairs behind the kitchen to the second floor and walked down the hallway to a room with a dark leather sofa, scrolled desk, and a couple of big leather chairs. Behind the desk, hung on the wall, was a large picture of Jesus with his heart exposed outside his chest and his right hand raised. The priest seemed very excited to show the boy where he lived. Maybe he was nervous. Father went to the door and looked up and down the hallway before he closed the heavy door quickly and locked it. Why was it so dark in the room? And why was that woman annoyed? What did Father say to her?

Earlier that afternoon, Father had visited the fifth grade at St. Joseph’s Grammar School, peeked through the door that had been left open a few inches, signaled to the nun to come near, and whispered something to her. She screwed her face into a sour look, then asked the boy to come to the front of the classroom, where she in turn whispered to the boy to leave the classroom to see the priest. He had something to talk to him about. As the boy walked out of the room, he was hoping that Father just wanted to check on his Mass schedule, as he sometimes did. He often wanted the boy to serve at his 7 a.m. Masses. This time, the priest said he needed the boy to meet him behind the rectory after school so he could show him something. He knew his face was flushed when he walked back into the classroom. Everyone except the nun was looking at him.

Just a week before, the young priest offered to give him a ride home after school. It was actually more than an offer. At that time, the boy had dreaded that prospect. The ride, as the boy realized, was not going to be directly home. The priest told him after he was in the car that they would try some new binoculars, and the priest drove the boy to the outskirts of the town, down a dirt road to a secluded spot that overlooked a pond with ducks swimming in the distance. The priest wanted to see the ducks in the binoculars. When the priest pulled the car off the dusty road into a clearing through some tall grass and bushes that scraped against the doors, and where the black 1957 Ford could not be seen by passers-by, he slid across the front seat against the boy, put his arm around him and forced himself against the boy’s body. The boy squirmed away, leaned forward until his chest was against the shiny metal dashboard and his head was almost touching the windshield and said he knew how to use the glasses. He could do it himself. Didn’t need help, and his mother was waiting for him anyway, so they had to go. Right then. The priest leaned over awkwardly and tried to kiss the boy’s face. The boy put up his hand between their faces but said nothing. The priest, flustered, slid back across the bench seat, fumbled with the binoculars and started the car. The priest said nothing until he got to the boy’s house. It’s our little secret. You can’t tell anyone because it will spoil things, and no one will understand. They will try to keep us from being friends. Please be my special friend okay? I’ll pray for you to Jesus. When a priest prays to Jesus, Jesus listens. Father extended his hand to the boy, and the boy shook the priest’s clammy hand. He ran out of the car, up the walk and into the house just in time for dinner.

* * *

He became an altar boy when he had just turned ten. His father brought him to see the priest because the priest had asked the boy about becoming an altar boy once when he saw him in the schoolyard, but the boy said no. He thought the priest was creepy. The priest called the boy’s father, and it was settled. He became an altar boy, and the priest dropped off a new Bible and a gold-handled Egyptian dagger for the boy as a “friendship present.”

When he fished his altar-boy training, his mother would get him out of bed for the 6 a.m. Mass and drive him to the church on those cold New England mornings, in the dark, when the dry snow would crunch under their feet. She would stay for the Mass and drive him home for breakfast. Then he would run off to school. After a few weeks of 6 a.m. Masses, the boy’s schedule was changed to 7 a.m. The boy could sleep later, and his mother wouldn’t have to stay for the Mass. The boy could go to school, which was next to the church right after Mass. That is, until the rendezvous started.

Behind the altar, connecting the altar boys’ dressing room and that of the priests, was a dark passageway with locking doors at each end. The space, only four feet wide but three stories high, was lit only by dim lights hanging from the ceiling on old chains and a narrow band of stained glass clerestory windows just under the ceiling along the outer wall of the church. The passageway was used only by the altar boys and an occasional nun to get to and from the priests’ area where they dressed for Mass. The garments were all kept in a wide closet, with each of the parish’s three priests having their own section. The doors were made of carved dark stained wood set along a wall with a recessed altar where gold chasubles were kept. They each had their own ritual to prepare for Mass and the altar boys would have to learn each priest’s routine. Some priests were more tolerant than others, but they all demanded that the altar boys do it their way. If not, they would inflict embarrassment on the boys, including making them do extra chores around the church, school and rectory.

The 7 a.m. Mass schedule was also set aside for the most senior and experienced boys, except for the new ten-year-old boy who was scheduled for 7 a.m. whenever the young priest had this Mass. The older boys assigned to serve Mass for this priest would rush out after Mass and leave the priest and the ten-year-old alone in the sacristy. The boy thought that the other boys would snicker and laugh over their shoulder as they ran out the door. The rendezvous began after Mass during the first week of the new 7 a.m. schedule. The priest took the ten-year-old into the passageway and closed the door. There the priest would hug the boy and try to press their bodies together. The boy would arch himself away from the priest so as not to feel any more of the man’s body than he had to. The priest would press his lips against the boy’s forehead and rock back and forth, humming or perhaps moaning. Words were not spoken. This would last until a few minutes before the school bell, and then the boy would run through the schoolyard to keep from being late.

* * *

Paul’s father pulled up to the house and got out of his Buick. He said hi to the boy sitting on the curb, and then looked closer at the ten-year-old. Paul’s father noticed that the boy’s eyes were red and that he looked pathetic, like he had been crying. He invited the boy to come in. Paul was at the dentist with his mother. Paul’s father offered the boy some chocolate milk and sat down at the kitchen table. Before the boy could even realize it, Paul’s father had the boy describing why he had been crying, describing his visit to the priest’s bedroom that afternoon, the ride home with the binoculars, and the rendezvous behind the altar. How did Paul’s father know what to ask? It was like he knew the answers to the questions. Like he was telling the boy what to say. Like he knew what happened. He knew about the ducks without asking. The boy still had no memory of how he left the rectory that afternoon and how he got home.

Paul was not home yet, but Paul’s father put the boy’s bicycle in the trunk of the Buick and drove him home. The boy’s father was home when the boy and Paul’s dad arrived. Paul’s father lifted the boy’s bike from the trunk and left it on the porch. Paul’s dad followed the boy into the house. He introduced himself to the boy’s father and asked to see him privately. The men went into the living room and closed the French doors, and the boy went up to his room worrying that he had said too much to Paul’s father. The boy’s mother followed him up to his room and asked him what had happened that Paul’s dad needed to talk to the boy’s dad. The last time a classmate’s father came to the house, it was to apologize for the classmate’s beating up the boy over a schoolyard argument. The mother thought this was more of the same problem as the boy was not a fighter and tended to get picked on. A lot. The boy was relieved that his mother did not ask again how he got home that day or anything about where he was after school.

Are you hurt? Are you all right? Is Paul okay? You didn’t get beat up again, did you? You know what your father said you need to do. You need to fight back. Punch them back. Kick them in their pants. That will teach them to leave you alone. Did you remember to fight back? When this line of interrogation was over, the questions transitioned to homework, school projects and then to when the boy was scheduled to serve Mass for the priest. The boy took a deep breath and exhaled. He gathered his courage and said “I am not going to be an altar boy anymore.”

“And why is that?” the mother asked.

“I’m not. That priest is a creep and keeps trying to do things that I don’t like.”

“Well, I’m sure he is just trying to be nice because he likes you. He wants to be your friend. Didn’t you say that?”

“I did, but he keeps trying other stuff.”

“Like what? What stuff?”

“I don’t want to say. I can’t talk about it. I’m feeling sick.”

And with that he vomited chocolate milk all over his bedroom floor. He vomited until he thought he was turning inside out. His mother wiped his face and neck with a cold washcloth.

Paul’s father left after about a half hour.

The boy heard the Buick drive off. The mother cleaned up the vomit and then went into the living room with the boy’s father. The door closed and the parents spoke quietly for a few minutes. Then the speaking became shouting, and the boy hid in his closet. He was hiding from the shouting and from the father. At dinner that evening, the boy’s father didn’t speak at all.

The next day, the boy told the nun that he did not want to be an altar boy and asked her to tell the priest. The nun said that the boy would have to go to see the priest himself and that the nun would arrange for the boy to see the priest in the school office. An hour later, the boy was called to the Principal’s conference room to see the priest.

“My mother and father told me I don’t have to be an altar boy if I don’t want to.” It was a lie and his voice quivered.

The priest started to walk back and forth around the room, visibly nervous and irritated. He walked up to the boy who was sitting in a chair and towered over him. The boy’s feet did not reach the floor and he could smell that priestly body odor that had become disgustingly familiar. The agitated man pointed his finger in the boy’s face and gritted that the boy would burn in hell for all eternity for what he did. You broke your promise. I’m calling back all the prayers I sent to Jesus for you. And I’m not going to allow you to make your Confirmation when you get to the seventh grade. And who do you think is going to believe you if you tell any of our secrets? What did you tell anyone?

The boy was terrified. He felt tingling in his arms and legs. What had he done? Why did he ever tell Paul’s father? Now he saw no way out. He wanted to cry. His voice trembled as he fumbled out, “I didn’t tell anybody anything, but I don’t care what you do to me, if you try to make me be an altar boy again, or take me in your room or that car or behind the altar, I will tell everybody what you keep trying to do. And if you try to stop my Confirmation, I will stand up in church and tell everyone what you do to altar boys.”

With clenched fists, the priest stood there motionless for what seemed like days. Finally he said. “You really didn’t tell anyone about our secrets?”

The boy lied and said “I just told some people I don’t want to be an altar boy. That’s all I told them. Really. I didn’t tell anything else. But I will tell them everything if you don’t leave me alone.”

The priest sat down, put his hands palm down on the table and stayed perfectly still for a long time looking at his hands. Then he raised his head, looked at the boy and smiled. He extended his hand in a handshake and said, “This is goodbye. We are breaking up. I wish you the very best, and I will still pray for you. And, yes, you can make your Confirmation. But only if you keep our secret.”

Three months after that conference room meeting, the priest was transferred to another parish. In the seventh grade, the boy made his Confirmation. It was 1958.

He still doesn’t remember how he got home.