Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 16

     Chez Chien was the closest thing to a fine French restaurant Broad Street had to offer, which wasn't saying much considering the competition included Charlie's Charcoal Pit—affectionately known as Charlie's Charcoal Armpit—and Papandapoulas' New York Kosher Style Deli. When it opened for business the previous year, Chez Chien held the distinction of being the first restaurant in town to use tablecloths that weren't red and white gingham, to set out salad forks and soup spoons instead of bringing them to only those who ordered salad or soup, and to keep fresh cut flowers on the tables. The menu, while unabashedly short on creativity and authentic French dishes, was well known for its sheer length and, for Broad Street, its high prices. Like most popular restaurants, Chez Chien was a triumph of form over sustenance.

     "Okay, everyone! It's show time!" Frank the headwaiter, called out, his head poking through the kitchen doors. "Jack, I just seated your first party. It’s a six-top. Let's get cracking."

     Frank returned to the podium by the front door just on time to greet a party of four as they walked in. "Welcome to Chez Chien," he said in his best French accent, which sounded enough like Maurice Chevalier with a harelip to impress most of his customers. "My name eez Francois. If there eez anything I can do to make your evening—how you say?—more enjoyable, pleeze do not hesitate to let me know.  Zeez way to your table, if you pleeze."

     One of the waiters walked up behind him. "Hey Frankie, what's the deal?" Frank turned and glared hard. "I mean, Francois. Look, I got a problem."

     Frank turned back to the customers. "Excusez moi. I weel be weeth you in une momento." He pulled Jack aside. "What the hell are you doing?"

     "Sorry, man. But I need some menus."

     "Well go to the waiter's station and get them," Frank said curtly.

     "They're not there."

     "They were last night."

     "Well they ain't there now," Jack said.

     "Then go to the storeroom and get some new ones."

     "Already checked," Jack said. "Nada."

     "There's a whole box of 'em. You can't miss 'em."

     "I'm tellin' you, they ain't there."

     Frank looked at Jack suspiciously. Jack shrugged his shoulders.

     "Hang on and let me seat these geeks," Frank said.

     After showing the two couples to their table, Frank went to the waiter's station. No menus. He quickly walked through the kitchen to the storeroom.  No menus. He searched the office, the walk-in refrigerator, underneath the dishwasher, above the cooking line, and even in the bathrooms.

     "Shit!" Frank spit out as he threw an empty pot across the kitchen. "Can you believe this? We're booked solid for the first time and we can't find a God damned menu. I mean, who the hell would walk out of here with a couple hundred menus?" He looked questioningly at the waiters, standing in a semi-circle around him. "How are we supposed to give these people good service if we don't have any menus?"

     * * * * * *

     Father Sturdevant stood at the altar of Our Lady of Ransom Church, his green vestments in stark contrast to the pure white altar cloths. He extended his hands towards the congregation.

     "Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles: I leave you peace, my peace I give you. Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom," he joined his hands in front of him, "where you live for ever and ever."

     "Amen," the standing congregants mumbled as they shifted their weight from one leg to the other in unison.

     Ralph Marconi, who felt very uncomfortable standing in front of the congregation wearing what he thought to be the rather feminine looking wide-sleeved surplice of an altar boy, watched the flickering flames of the two candles on the altar.

     Father Sturdevant extended his hands and clasped them. "The peace of the Lord be with you always."

     "And also with you," the crowd responded.

     "Let us offer each other the sign of peace," the priest announced as he walked over and pumped the acolyte's hand in a two-fisted handshake. The congregants turned to each other with open greetings, the meek shaking limp hands, the women loosely grasping upper arms while kissing cheek air, and the men coveting their neighbor's wives with a too-hearty hug and a wet, glancing smooch.

     Ralph turned his back to the altar, scanning the crowd to see who the lucky devil was who managed to strategically position himself next to Diana Perkins and whether or not this week's Chosen had the good fortune—and balls—to clutch her in an adolescent death hug. Job, you see, wasn't the only one who had the hots for Diana.

     Father Sturdevant walked over to Ralph and snatched up his right hand, startling the boy so badly he nearly fell down the steps. The priest placed his hands on Ralph's shoulders and turned him around so his back was to the congregation. He then walked to the altar where he picked up a piece of unleavened bread.

     "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us," the congregation chanted. "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace."

     Father Sturdevant broke the bread over the paten and placed a small piece in the chalice, quietly saying, "May this mingling of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it."

     He turned his head and nodded to Ralph.

     Ralph absently gazed at the flames of the altar candles.

     "Now," Father Sturdevant said in a loud whisper.

     Startled, Ralph jerked his head up to look at the ceiling, then realizing it wasn't the voice of God he heard, looked at Father Sturdevant questioningly. The priest pointed towards Ralph's feet. Ralph looked at his shoes and pulled the surplice aside; his shoes were polished and the shoelaces securely tied. He looked back at the priest, who pointed exaggeratedly to the ground next to Ralph's feet. Ralph looked down to his right, then grinned sheepishly. He bent down and picked up the silver altar bell and rang it loudly.

     Thirty-four congregants left their pews and walked towards the altar rails while the rest of the congregation knelt. Ralph continued ringing the bell, the pure metallic tones echoing through the sanctuary. Father Sturdevant motioned for Ralph to stop, but Ralph had turned his head towards the approaching congregants to see if Diana Perkins would be kneeling before the rail in one of her usual low-cut dresses.

     Being an angel was never a prerequisite to being an altar boy.

     Father Sturdevant loudly cleared his throat, but Ralph continued ringing the bell. He cleared his throat again, even louder. Ralph rang away, straining his head to look for Diana. The acolyte walked over to Ralph and gently laid a hand on his shoulder. Ralph jumped, nearly dropping the bell.   The acolyte gave him a stern look, then walked back to his place while Ralph turned to Father Sturdevant with eyes wide. This had to be a mortal sin. The priest smiled gently at Ralph, chuckled to himself, then shook his head as he turned back to the altar.

     "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God," he said quickly and very nearly silently, "by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit your death brought life to the world. By your holy body and blood free me from all my sins and from every evil. Keep me faithful to your teaching, and never let me be parted from you."

     Father Sturdevant dropped one knee to the ground, then stood and faced the crowd. Holding the host slightly over the paten, he said, "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper."

     "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you," he said along with the crowd, "but only say the word and I shall be healed."

     He turned to face the altar and quietly said, "May the body of Christ bring me to everlasting life." He ate the wafer.

     Gathering up several crumbs from the linen corporal which was spread on the altar, he dropped them in the large gold chalice, lifting it with both hands.

     "May the blood of Christ bring me to everlasting life."

     He raised the chalice to his lips, nearly choking as the purple liquid hit his tongue. The wine had quite unmiraculously turned into grape Kool-Aid. He turned to look at Ralph, who was once again angelically staring into the flickering flame of an altar candle.  "The physicality of the Sacrament is not important," he rationalized. "The symbolism of the Holy Sacrifice remains intact." He turned back to the altar and drank the remainder of the Kool-Aid.

     Father Sturdevant lifted the white silk cover from the gold ciborium. He held up the large covered chalice and lifted the cover, reaching in for a small wafer. Something was wrong. Dreadfully wrong. He lowered the ciborium and looked inside.

     It was full of Ritz crackers.

     The priest looked at the acolyte, then at Ralph, who was still mesmerized by the flame. He jiggled the ciborium; yes, they were all Ritz crackers. He turned to the thirty-four people kneeling at the altar rails.

     "The Sacrament is an outward sign," he thought. "The symbolism is just as valid."

     He walked to the altar rail and stood in front of the first woman. Her eyes were closed. "The body of Christ," he said, pulling a Ritz cracker from the ciborium and placing it on her tongue. She bit into the cracker and looked up in surprise.

     "The blood of Christ," he said, putting the chalice to her lips.

     "Amen," she responded, her eyes opening wide as the sweet Kool-Aid mingled in her mouth with the buttery Ritz cracker.

     Father Sturdevant leaned over and whispered in her ear, "'Be not curious in unnecessary matters. Ecclesiastes 3:23’." Then he stood upright and moved to the next person.


Chapter 17 ]

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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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