There was that moment of silence just before Mass began, when the altar boys stood with lit candles behind the priest in a narrow hallway to one side of the altar, concealed from the congregation by a brick partition. I always felt a twinge of nervousness akin to waiting backstage before making a theatrical appearance, for in seconds we were to walk in procession along a side aisle to the back of the church, take a right past the baptismal font, and solemnly traverse the center aisle. After ascending some steps and placing our candles on either side of the altar, we would simultaneously bow beneath the crucifix and then take our seats on either side of throne-like chair that accommodated the priest.
As self-conscious adolescents, we were well aware of the potential for public embarrassment that was offered by participating in the ritual. All eyes were upon us, and were we to trip over our cassocks or drop a wine cruet, it would not go unnoticed. So there was always a bit of tension as we waited in the wings, just the sort of mildly anxious anticipation that inspires one to create a healthy distraction. That is the only explanation I have for why I smiled at Alberto, yanked out a hair from the top of my head, and placed it in the flame of my candle.
In retrospect, my impulsive action was an example of perfect comedic timing executed at the most unfortunate moment. Just as the oily filament was immersed in fire, we heard the musical cue to begin the processional, whereupon my plucked hair burst into flame with far greater brilliance than I had expected. I saw Alberto’s eyes widen in surprise as I recoiled from the combustion. And then, before either of us had a second to properly process what had just happened, we were walking out among the congregation, our flared nostrils detecting a hint of singed hair.
Had I indulged my pyromania, say, sixty seconds earlier, Alberto and I would have shared a mischievous giggle and forgotten the incident by the time we reached the altar. However, because our laughter had been suppressed due to our immediate assumption of public piety, we endured an uncomfortable containment of manic energy like a pair of corked volcanoes. Throughout the service, we sat tight-lipped upon the altar, avoiding each other’s eyes. We knew that bursting out with laughter during Mass would be worse than any other gaffe we could commit, and that knowledge only increased our internal hilarity. Somehow we made it through the service without embarrassing ourselves, though any observant congregant might have been puzzled by the stern countenances of the altar boys that morning.
One might think that I would have learned some valuable lesson concerning the incompatibility of altar boys and playing with fire, yet I confess that I was drawn toward the flame once more. It was during the eighth-grade altar boy trip to Kings Island, a reward for our faithful and dependable service. With only a little money in my pocket to procure a souvenir, I was scanning a gift shop for inexpensive items, when I happened upon a small bin of disposable lighters. They were plastic and translucent, with a reservoir of butane fuel visible beneath the Kings Island logo. I selected one with a red barrel, flicked my thumb against the ignition wheel, and observed the flame that arose at my command. It was cool, it had the tantalizing cachet of forbidden fruit, and amazingly, it was sold without question to minors.
My purchase was an end in itself, for I had no use for a lighter other than a primal fascination with producing fire. My friend and fellow altar boy John, however, saw my new acquisition as a means to fulfill his own deviant desires. Since I now possessed a portable flame, John was inspired to conduct a sociological experiment to see if it was possible for a 13-year-old boy to successfully bum a cigarette from a stranger. If he were to succeed, we would have at hand all of the necessary tools to engage in the very adult art of smoking.
At this juncture, I am compelled to relate an amusing tidbit concerning the attitudes of our respective families toward juvenile delinquency and our susceptibility to it. There is no doubt that John was an eccentric personality, and this quality along with his occasionally inexplicable actions prompted my mother and father to perceive him as a potentially bad influence on me. I would later learn that this is precisely the same assessment that John’s parents had made of me. The truth is that we were both somewhat odd by the standards of our peers, and we simply enjoyed being in the company of someone else whose mind worked a little differently.
We were not alike, however, but compatible. I was comparatively reserved and far more concerned about how I was perceived by others. John was more confident and seemed like he didn’t care what anybody thought. We shared a quirky sense of humor, and John was the one who was most likely to act upon our sillier ideas. Thus it somehow made perfect sense that he should pester unsuspecting adults for a cigarette that he hoped to ignite with my lighter.
“Do you have an extra cigarette?” John politely inquired of smokers we encountered while waiting in line for rides. “It’s for my mother.” This stratagem was about as effective as you might think it would be, until at last John asked someone of sufficiently low intelligence, who kindly obliged him without so much as a raised eyebrow. We fled with our contraband, high on the adrenaline that is produced by illicit madness.
Really, that was the thrill in its totality for me. I had no intention whatsoever of smoking the thing. John, however, could not pass up the opportunity, and all that remained was the question of where to smoke in an amusement park with no chance of being observed by altar boy trip chaperones. We wound up driving along the winding roads of the antique cars, me at the wheel and John puffing away while huddled under the dashboard.
We had reached the end of our altar serving careers, and as I steered our chugging vehicle over the center path rail and winced at the cigarette smoke, I stared at the pink-tinged clouds of the evening horizon and pondered the future. I considered my crouching companion and thought about Alberto and our other fellow altar boys. One thing was clear. We definitely were not on the path to becoming altar men.