Dressed in freshly laundered vestments—red cassock, white surplice—the boy stands in a bright square of sunlight. He is holding a gold thurible by its chain, the smoky scent of myrrh still strong, the live coal inside still burning. The bishop, a large man, stands behind the altar—white miter, olivewood staff, emerald green stole embroidered with gold crosses. The congregants, two hundred or more, sit solemnly in the nave, having already filed forward to sip wine from one of three silver chalices. And now the boy watches as the bishop lifts the first chalice, cradling it in both hands as if supporting an infant for the sprinkling of baptism. Without hesitation, he brings the cup to his fleshy lips, tipping it back, gulping audibly, his Adam’s apple moving like a mouse beneath a blanket. That nothing may be lost. This is what the boy hears the bishop whisper to himself before he extends his prodigious tongue, resting it on the inner rim as he begins to turn the chalice slowly, one full revolution. He does the same with the second chalice. And the third.
That afternoon, when the members of his family—cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents—retire to the den to watch television and play boardgames, the boy stays behind in the kitchen. He has volunteered to help his mother clear the table. But as she waits, careful to hold her soapy yellow gloves over the sink, the boy lifts a fluted wine glass to his lips—an imprint of pink lipstick on the rising side of the rim as he rotates the glass clockwise. His tongue, a purple root, fully extended. On the table before him, a tidy row of wine glasses—seven or so—all empty.
One Sunday after Mass, the boy’s priest, Father Kenning, keeps his cracked, reed-thin lips pressed flat, his left eye—the larger of the two—vibrating slightly as he delivers instructions to an older boy, Gabe Glasser, an acolyte with a sharp, badly freckled nose who has vacuumed a consecrated host off the floor. Gabe is to carefully empty the bag, sift through the dust, retrieve every last crumb of our Lord’s broken body. Having done so, he is to dig a proper hole in the cathedral garden to bury the fallen host.
Minutes later, passing by a narrow window, the boy spots Gabe Glasser straddling one side of a large brown dumpster, shaking out the contents of the vacuum bag, the dust floating up around his dark curls like incense. The boy runs out the door, climbs into the dumpster, gets down on his knees amid the dead broken flower stems, the old mophead that reeks of stale Port, the condensed coils of spongy gray dust and filth. “You better not tell,” Gabe Glasser says from his perch, pinching a corner of the empty bag between thumb and forefinger, lightly tapping the heel of one black loafer against the resounding metal wall. But the boy does not hear him—not really, so absorbed is he in his work.
In time, the boy becomes a man who sits on a pew beside a pretty woman because she wants him to be there, wants him to know that it is important to her, wants him to believe in his heart that it is important. He is brushing a stubborn piece of lint from his silk tie. When the woman touches his knee with her painted nail, they rise, step into the center aisle, merge with the shuffling procession of strangers—a few, marching ahead, clearing throats, coughing into fists. As he approaches the first priest, the man glimpses his own reflection on the silver chalice—attenuated, pale—then arcs around the station, for she has gone before him and will not see. From the second priest, the man accepts a host in his open palm, pretends to place it on his tongue before depositing it deep in the pocket of his trousers. Seated again, the woman takes his hand, smiling up at him—radiant. He smiles, but without turning to meet her gaze.
That evening, when he takes out his keys, his wallet, he finds the communion wafer. Still intact. He walks to the kitchen, flips the light switch, bends to open the cabinet door beneath the sink. A nearly full trash bin—a wet tea bag on top, neatly lassoed, strangled by its own string. It seems absurd, silly, but he cannot do it. Neither can he do the other. And so, there he stands, half his weight on a creaking floorboard—a board that groans with the retreating and with the advancing of his unsteady foot.
Robert Brian Mulder lives in Portland, Oregon. His stories have been published in The Sun, Cimarron Review, Witness, and Moon City Review, which recently nominated “Right Things Left Undone” for the Pushcart Prize. He was longlisted for the 2021 LitMag Anton Chekhov Award for Flash Fiction, was a finalist for the 2020 J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2019 Fish Publishing International Short Story Prize. He also received an honorable mention for the 2017 Glimmer Train Press Very Short Fiction Contest, and has been a finalist for the Boston Review Short Story Contest.
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