Lawrence Chizak lives in Danbury, Ct, USA with his wife and close to children and grandchildren. He’s published in The Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Stirring: A Literary Collection , SNReview, Critter Caper, Journey VIII and Still Crazy. His short story “There Are No Dahlias in Detroit” won second prize from the Arkansas College Media Association.
‘Your fiction may not be true for you but there is always an element of truth for someone, somewhere.’
My Devil and Me
I made it, a tight squeeze, but I still fit. I didn’t think I would. I last slid in here fifteen years ago. I’m older, broader, and lugging this long canvas case, but I made it. This small space above the organ seemed larger back then. It’s a little musty. It’s perfect now. I got the altar right in my view. To the altar to which I went as a young boy and recited , Introibo ad altari Dei, Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam – I will go to the altar of God, to God the joy of my youth. Yeah sure . The opening lines memorized by every altar boy for the start of Mass.
How many times I said those lines as I knelt next to Father B?
The first time he wanted me for his 9:30 Mass I was in the fourth grade of St. Casmir’s parish school. He sent call over the intercom, “Can you send Stephen up to serve Mass, Sister Beatrice John?” Of course. She delighted having one of her students singled out to serve God. I didn’t mind. I missed class and Father B, as we all called him, was a cool guy. Cool, we thought, the way he bantered with the boys. Cool, we thought, because he didn’t, like old Father Thaddeus, tell us we were sinful and need go to confession. The boys envied me out of class to serve the cool one’s Mass. The girls were jealous because they never got to serve on the altar.
“Ad altari Dei.” This space is just large enough for me to brace myself with a perfect viewpoint below.
They have begun to assemble, the old ladies with their rosaries getting as close as they can behind the reserved seating. Will their rosary beads save them? The altar is ablaze with flowers, the same altar where I served Father B. I remember that day long ago in September. Remember! I wish I could purge it from my memory.
We just started school, after the summer recess, when he called. I was in the fifth grade with Sister Thomas Aquinas – a no-shit nun who didn’t want anyone out of her class but she had to let me go with the additive, “You should be back in one half hour, no more.” After Mass, back in the sacristy, I took off my surplice and cassock while Father B shed his Mass vestments. As I walked by him to hang up my stuff, he tousled my hair. I smiled and ducked. He turned and tried again. I ducked again. My laughter said, “You missed.” He grabbed me and started to tickle me. I laughed and pushed his hands away, all playful fun and sure beat Sister Thomas’ lessons. Then, he put his hand between my legs and tried to lift me up. He couldn’t. “Boy, you’ve grown this summer,” he said but didn’t remove his hand. He massaged me, gently at first. With more pressure, I responded.
“Ah the devil is in you, Stephen,” he said as he held me. “Don’t let the devil take hold or you’ll burn in hell for all eternity.” He let go. “Go back to class now and say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys to chase the devil from you.” I ran back to the classroom partly out of fear of Sister Thomas’ curfew and partly out of fear the devil would grab me on the way. I said my five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys as I slid into my seat and blessed myself. Sister Thomas smiled at me, a warm smile, and told me we were on page sixty-two of our geography books.
The rest of the afternoon I worried if the devil would get me, damn me for all eternity; was there was any hope. When I got home, I dug out my old St. Christopher medal and put it on. I needed all the protection I could get. The devil was stalking me and I had to fight him.
Do those people in the church think they are damned? Are they saying their five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys to fight off their devils? Do they have hope? Hey down there, do you know who the devil is? He’s coming. He’s coming here today.
Father B didn’t call me for Mass for a whole week. Maybe he didn’t want someone with the devil inside him at the altar. I kept saying my penance every morning and every night. I even attended a novena to St. Jude. That surprised my proud mother. On Friday, the call came.
“Sister Thomas,” the call came. “Would you please send Stephen up to serve my Mass.” “Yes, Father.” “Thank you, Sister.” Out I went, saved. I had beaten the devil, and Father B wants me back on the altar.
After Mass, when we hung up our vestments, Father B. told me to stand in front of him. “Well Stephen, is that devil still in you?” he asked.
“I don’t think so, Father,” I answered. “I’ve been saying my penance.”
“Well let’s see,” he said as he unbuckled my pants and placed his hand over my crotch. He went inside my underpants and started moving me around. I looked up at him as I started to respond and caught the big grin on his broad face. He kept his hand in my pants for a few minutes before he said, “No Stephen, the devil is still in you. You’ve got to send that devil back to hell. If you don’t, he will take over your soul. So keep saying your Our Fathers and Hail Marys daily. Now back to class with you.”
For weeks, I lived in fear of the devil hiding in a black hole that was my soul .
Hey folks down there, do you know where the devil is? He’s in the pews, behind the statues, around the altar. He’s here, right next to you. You can’t escape him. Your prayers won’t chase him away. He’s got you.
For the next two months, Father B called me to serve his Masses. For the next several weeks I had to see his broad ruddy face, glassy eyes, straight black hair and his grin, always that grin, as he hovered over me. For the next two months, I felt his big farmer hands as he grouped and pulled. By spring, I got on the school’s CYO basketball team, coached by Father B. We were in the locker room, all eleven of us boys, showering and dressing. As I looked around, I realized they too had the devil in them but they laughed at it, jostled about it and made jokes. They called each other “faggot, queer or pervert” if one came too close. Then I realized it wasn’t just my devil. It was everyone’s devil. Mine wore a roman collar.
That night, I told my dad about Father B. He told me Father B, a priest, and a holy man, doesn’t do those things. He told me to shut up or I’ll go to hell.
I’m already there, Dad; I’m already there.
The next time he called me to Mass, I went but didn’t look at him. After Mass, he tried to grab me. I gave him one quick kick in the shins and ran out. I ran up here to this niche, above the organ pipes, behind this stone façade. I watched him running through the church, searching under the pews, in the confessionals, calling me, “Stephen, Stephen, we’ve got to talk.” I said nothing and hid in the shadows. I didn’t go back to class, and I didn’t go home until dark so I could slip out, unnoticed. When I got home, my mom was angry, worried, and confused. I told her everything. I saw the anguish in her face and tears in her eyes.
The Knights are arriving now, in the rear of the church, with their plumed hats, capes, and silver swords. They are the honor guard of the Catholic Church. They stand around, talk to each other, and wave to friends.
The next day, Mom and I met with Father Thaddeus. He sat straight with his white hair, bushy eyebrows, and his hard eyes focused on me like Jesus on Judas. “He must be mistaken,” he said to my mother. “Father B is a devoted priest, great with young adults, works day and night for the good of the Church.” My mother nodded.
What about my devil?
“And,” he continued without taking a breath, “spreading false stories, especially about a priest, is a mortal sin. You’ll go straight to hell with a mortal sin on your soul. So don’t repeat this story ever.
I am in hell already and there’s no getting out.
Father B never again called me to serve Mass.
Father Thaddeus settled the case but my devil didn’t leave. We went to church every Sunday, just like those people down there in the pews: moms, dads, and children in-between. We sat like sheep listening to the shepherd but the shepherd was the fox. After months, Father B transferred, reassigned we heard to another parish, a bigger parish with a high school attached. A year later, he transferred to the Bishop’s office.
I wasn’t as lucky. The devil wouldn’t leave me. I went to public high school because I couldn’t get into a Catholic school. I went out for sports but couldn’t stand the coach’s touch, his acknowledgement of a good play, or my teammates jostling me in the locker room. I had several jobs after high school but resented my bosses telling me what to do with their hands on my shoulder while they explained something. I had a succession of girlfriends. When we got into bed, their pretty smiles turned into his grin and their delicate hands became his farmer’s fingers groping me. While others got married and started families, I shared a black hole with my devil, a hole that killed friendships, strangled love and sucked the life of any one trapped in it.
I open the case beside me and remove its contents. I have just enough room to point it through the stonework. The procession starts. The Knights of Columbus form a line straight down both sides of the center aisle, feathers in their hats and swords drawn to form an arch. The pews are full. This is St. Casmir’s son, born to the parish, ordained to the church, served here fifteen years and returns a bishop. Every person who ever lived here sits in the pews. Any priest who ever served here walks in the procession. The organ plays a Bach prelude. Will the organ drown out my sound? The procession led by the cross bearer and two acolytes moves slowly to the altar. The incense masks the church with an eerie, old feel. The priests follow two by two. At the end of the line comes Father Thaddeus, retired, waving to the faithful. Finally he comes into view in his new miter and gold cloak followed by two young seminarians. His crosier in his left hand, he blesses everyone with his ringed right. They kneel as he passes. The Knights snap to attention. He is their bishop. He is my devil.
“Introibo ad altari Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.” I am taking my devil back to hell.