A half mile walk from my house up to the church, up Center Street and across the train tracks to Pine, across to Bungalow Drive and up to Holly Avenue, then up to Maryland Avenue and past the swimming pool and through Hilltop Park, and across Grand Avenue, where you could see a sliver of the ocean where the road cut through the dunes a mile off, and into the church. The morning remains a fragmented run-on I frequently recall.
But I could not see the ocean that morning, the morning of the caper of the bells, because it was still dark out. I was altar boy for the week at the 5:15 AM mass. The church was still locked. I went through the gate between the rectory and sacristy entrance of the church. But the sacristy was also locked. I didn’t see any lights on in the rectory. I did not know exactly what time it was. Dad had rousted me from bed, and I got dressed and left without a word between the two of us. I sat down on the church porch and with my back against the sacristy door, fell asleep.
I don’t know how long I’d been sleeping when the priest woke me up, unlocked the door, and in we went. I put on my cassock and filled the water and wine cruets and took them out to the table beside the altar. Meanwhile, the priest went out to unlock the doors to the church and came back in to put on his vestments, quietly saying his prayers while dressing, not a word between the two of us.
I led the way out the sacristy side door to the altar, the priest behind me bearing his chalice in two hands, stopped and backed up to allow him to pass to the center. Only the front of the church was lit with lights, the back kept dark, because there were only a few people scattered in the front pews: a couple of nuns in full regalia, a high school student no doubt doing penance for some heinous sin, a couple of old women wearing hats and holding rosaries, and Mr. Mulligan, in for his morning pick-me-up.
The congregation rose as the priest and I walked to the altar. I took up my position at the bottom of the stairs, he climbed to the altar, and the magic show went live. The mass was still being said in Latin, and I completed the dialog with the priest with my responses in Latin, although I understood little of what I was saying. But I liked the sounds of the Latin words, like magic incantations.
There was no sermon in these early morning masses, communion went quickly with so few communicants, and the whole affair was over in 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the mood of the priest. The priest kept his back to the congregation. And while we said the prayers of the dialog, we kept our voices to a near whisper, as if afraid we might awaken the statues of the saints, and by the time of the hush that settled in at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I was sound asleep on my knees.
The priest was clicking with his thumb and finger at me, trying to get my attention. I awoke stupefied and grabbed the bells and starting ringing them. But it wasn’t time for the bells. It was time for me to get up and go to the side table and get the cruets of water and wine and carry them up the steps to the priest so he could wash his fingers and take a drink of wine. I realized my mistake, put down the bells, and carried on. The ringing of the bells at the wrong place in the ceremony must have awoken the entire congregation from their prayerful morning slumber.
I gave my bell experience to Isaac, one of Henry Killknot’s younger brothers, in “Penina’s Letters.” Henry shares Isaac’s ringing of the bells at the wrong moment to Salty, Penina, and Puck, who have driven over to Saint Gelda Church in Venice to attend Isaac’s First Holy Communion ceremony. Henry finds the story hilarious, and creates a local ruckus around their pew as he tells it to the others. Salty smiles, but Penina and Puck don’t really understand what it’s all about.
This is the second in a series of pieces on bells at The Coming of the Toads.