Perfect Circles
Meg Waite Cllayton
Shenandoah, Spring 1999

John’s black leather Mass kit sat open on Mom’s kitchen island, sharing the countertop with my flour and eggs and milk. John pulled the white altar cloth from the bag and unfolded it carefully, as if it were parchment that might disintegrate. He laid it out across the tile, smoothing the fine linen flat so that one edge skimmed the butcher block wood of the built-in cutting board. "The thirty-first psalm, Bucko," he said.

Buck flipped the thin pages of Mom’s family Bible, his face working its way into the same puzzled altar boy expression he’d so often suffered when we were growing up. He ran a hand through his hair, still thick strawberry blond where John, Patrick and Finney were going bald.

"I can’t find Psalms, Father John," he said.

I wanted to ask Buck why he "Father John’d" our own brother. Didn’t he remember the way John rode us on the handlebars, let us win at gin rummy, taught us about fractions and gerunds and ways to kiss? He couldn’t have forgotten how John tickled us till we couldn’t breathe and made us do his chores and thumped us on our heads just for sport. What did wearing a collar have to do with that? But I’d just started calling him John again myself, and only because Jake, my fiance, thought it funny that I called him "Father." Jake liked to call him John-John, though not to his face.

I stepped into the kitchen. "Old Testament. Between Job and Proverbs. Thirty-first would be, say, somewhere between thirty and thirty-two."

Buck grinned. "Morning, Katy."

John slid a finger inside his collar as if to loosen it. "Not bad for a nonbeliever, Kathleen."

Buck straightened his wire-rimmed glasses and flipped a few more pages.

"‘I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind,’" I quoted. "‘I am like a broken vessel.’"

Buck raised his green eyes to me without lifting his head, his look signalling an impending smart remark. "You know yourself pretty well," he laughed.

"I know the thirty-first psalm, Buck. And I’m getting married in the Episcopal church, John. It’s not a pagan ceremony. They have crucifixes and pews and kneelers and they trot right on up for communion, just like us."

John chuckled a warm, practiced laugh. Had he laughed like that before he entered the seminary? I was only thirteen then. All I remember is kneeling in the Cathedral the day he was ordained, the shock of seeing him—my big brother John who never put up with anything, never bowed to anyone—lying prostrate on the ground, his face pressed to the floor, the black of his collar and his shoes sticking out from the pure white whiteness of his robe. That image of John being not at all the John I knew, and the look on my mother’s face, not just all glowing from the inside, but actually spilling out for once. I wanted to be a priest then, just to make Mom look like that. I couldn’t be, of course. I knew that, knew that when my parents said I could do anything, be anything, they meant anything but a priest. Still.

A burst of laughter came from the family room. It was not yet eight o’clock in the morning, but the house was filled again with relatives, as it had been all weekend. Mom’s sixtieth birthday celebration was drawing to an end. I picked up my cousin Maureen’s high titter from among the voices, then Mom’s quiet chuckle working its way up into her sweet, high-pitched laugh-sigh. If she was smoking a cigarette, the smoke would be stuttering out as she laughed, as it had late into the night last night. It had been like that all weekend, the family getting along. Miracle enough for me.

By tonight, I’d be safely back home, and we wouldn’t gather like this again until the next wedding or funeral, probably. Maybe not even then. The next scheduled wedding was Jake’s and mine and we were marrying outside the Church, a scandal that had the family whispering together about whether even Mom and Dad would attend.

I offered coffee to Buck and John—I’d just made a pot, surprised that no one else had—but they both declined. I poured myself a cup.

"You’re saying a Mass here, John?" I asked. "In the kitchen?"

He nodded, continuing to pull things from the bag: a crucifix, a chalice, a small silver serving plate, a tin of communion hosts.

I slid my pancake makings off the center island, set them on the counter by the stove.

"Technically, it’s not a Mass," John said. "The bread and wine have already been blessed."

I looked at him, then at Buck. "No one told me we were having a Mass."

Buck avoided me the way he avoided me when he broke my rosary—the one Nanna gave me for Confirmation—the very afternoon I got it. He kept flipping the pages of the Bible, as if he hadn’t heard.

"Let’s hear about it, Buck," I said.

He flipped another page, still searching for Psalms. "Dad’s decision." He didn’t look up.

"The Mass?"

"To have it here at the house," John said. "Dad wanted you to be here. For Mom. He wasn’t sure you’d come to the church."

I whacked an egg against the edge of the bowl. It split open, poured out. I broke another, harder this time, and whipped the eggs until they were creamy yellow and bubbly. By the time Dad came in carrying two folding chairs, I’d resolved to sit through this. I would not be the one to break Mom’s birthday peace.

Dad set the chairs against the wall. "Three minutes, Jonathan." He was talking about the sermon. A short sermon was never the mark of my brother’s Mass. "Katy’s plane is at eleven." He placed a chair at the end of a row of wooden kitchen chairs that had been Grandma’s. "We need to feed everyone and be out of here by nine fifteen, right Katy-do?" He smiled at me as if this were a perfectly natural thing we were doing here, having a Mass in Mom’s kitchen. He set up the second chair and disappeared through the door into the hall.

Patrick and Finney came in carrying more chairs, talking about the Cubs’ prospects for the upcoming season, which as usual were bad. They set the chairs at the end of a row and disappeared again, talking now about the NBA finals. "The Bulls in four," Finney said.

"The Jazz will take one."

"The Bulls in four, mark my words."

Aunt Mary came in, carrying John’s robes. "Father John," she said to get his attention. She lifted the robes over his head as he raised his arms to slide into them, right there by the refrigerator. She was completely nonchalant about it all, as impassive as if she’d simply come for a fresh glass of juice.

This Mass had been planned for a while.

I whisked the eggs into the flour, then poured in milk and applesauce. How was I going to work fixing breakfast around the unexpected Mass? The sausage was already cooked, and I could refrigerate the batter until after the service. I could heat the griddle, too, then start pouring pancakes after we were told to go in peace.

But the griddle would be behind John, behind the altar. I couldn’t leave it heating through the entire service, the oil crackling and burning while John led us through the drill. If I wasted time waiting for the griddle, though, I’d have maybe thirty minutes to make pancakes for twenty-five. And that’s if we started immediately, which we weren’t going to, and John held the sermon to three minutes, which he wouldn’t. If the traffic was bad, I’d miss my flight.

I stirred bananas and pecans into the batter, and it was done. I needed only the plastic wrap from the middle drawer of the center island, where John was laying out communion hosts on the silver plate.

"Excuse me, John." I nodded at the drawer.

He stepped aside and I took his place at the altar. I opened the drawer and grabbed the box without looking at the island top. Women weren’t permitted behind the altar in the Catholic Church, but did that apply to kitchen island altars? Girls could be altar boys now, anyway—altar people?—so maybe that rule had changed, I didn’t know, but it was well-ingrained in me.

Dad, Patrick and Finney finished bringing chairs into the kitchen. Four rows stretched across the eating area, an odd collection of folding chairs and kitchen chairs and Mom’s dining room chairs, the flower patterns of their needle-pointed seats scattered about in the last two rows. They’d taken the leaves out of the kitchen table, too, to make room for more chairs, and they’d removed my basketball trophies from Mom’s cookbook shelf so they wouldn’t get knocked over and broken.

At the island, John set a decanter of wine beside the chalice. The red I’d drunk the night before. That had to be a sin, drinking communion wine at a party. But it was there at the bar, next to the gallon jugs of scotch and bourbon. No wonder it tasted sour.

The seats began to fill with people: a few aunts and uncles dribbled in, followed by my sister-in-law, my two nieces and an old friend of Mom’s from LeMars, Iowa, where she grew up. I watched them take their seats, listening to the chatter of their midwestern voices, nodding or saying a few words in greeting as perfume, aftershave and the clinging odor of cigarette smoke mingled in the air. As everyone came through the doorway, I tried to predict who would dip fingers in the holy water font (a cereal bowl by the toaster oven), who would genuflect to the tile-topped altar. By the time I realized that I, too, should be seated if I was going to stay for this, there were only three chairs left. Aunt Dotty and her daughter, Maureen, took the two in the back row, and only the front row, center, was left. I could sit through this, maybe, but not in that seat.

I scanned the room. Maureen would trade seats without a word, without a question. She wasn’t raised in the Church. She didn’t care. But she was in the back row and the chairs were packed together. I’d make a scene climbing over everyone.

I circled around through the living room, where my trophies were stacked precariously on the couch on which we never sat. (We weren’t living room people; we were kitchen-table-and-back-porch types.)

There was one chair left in the dining room, sitting, as if it were meant for me, under a watercolor of the Santa Barbara Mission I’d painted for Mom and Dad that Christmas. I pulled it up to the door and, though it wouldn’t fit into the kitchen, I could see the makeshift altar through the open doorway well enough.

John was addressing some remarks to Aunt Dotty, Maureen’s mother, saying something about communion. Was he asking her to join in the communion? But she was divorced, like Jake. Not just divorced but remarried to a non-Catholic, Uncle Ben, who’d died a year before. I must have misunderstood.

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," John said.

Around me, my family responded "Amen" in one voice.

John took us through the Greeting, and we said the Penitential Rite, striking our breasts on cue. We said the Glory to God and sat for the first reading, from the writings of the prophet Isaiah, and we responded to the Psalm Buck had finally found, repeating our designated line. Buck sped through the second reading, sticking to the short version, anxious to keep to Dad’s schedule. The Mass was moving along. We were interrupted once by the ringing of the telephone; Mom turned the ringer off, but the phone in the family room trilled and then the answering machine, Dad’s voice and the beep, then a dial tone. And there was a moment of hesitation the first time we were supposed to kneel. We stole glances at each other. Were we really supposed to kneel on the linoleum floor? But Dad did and everyone followed his lead. I thought of scooting my chair back, kneeling on the deep dining room carpet, but it seemed unfair that I should have a softness under me that no one else would share.

I’d made the requisite three signs of the cross, one over my forehead, one over my lips, one over my heart, and we were into the Gospel when John’s deep voice paused, began again, then stopped altogether. He stared at the bible with unfocused eyes. Had he lost his train of thought? The silence went on and on, interrupted only by the clatter of ice falling from the ice maker, the whir of the pump refilling the machine. Still, John couldn’t seem to collect himself. He rested his hands on the tile countertop—the altar—and leaned forward.

"I’m sorry," he said. He pulled out a handkerchief and patted it at his nose. The storms were still breaking across his face, but he managed to subdue them and make his way through the Gospel.

For the sermon, John started with an anecdote about Tommy, one of the boys from his parish school in the Irish neighborhood where Dad grew up. Tommy’s mother was dying of cancer and Tommy didn’t know what to do, how to watch his mother die. And then John began to talk of Dotty again. He talked of how she cared for Ben when he was dying, how she made his dying easier, less painful, just by being there, and sometimes that’s all we can do, make the dying easier and take care of ourselves. "We forget that sometimes," he said. "We forget to take care of ourselves."

And then John was asking Dotty to please come to communion, saying it was okay for her to take care of herself. And it was so unlike him to break the rules—even to bend them—that I sat there, perplexed, trying to figure out what was going on. Maybe he was dying. It was a ridiculous thought—he wasn’t even forty—but with all this talk of dying I thought maybe John was dying and despite all his faith he was scared.

"I know I’m wasting time . . .," John said.

I looked to the front row, to Dad. His face was unconcerned, patient. He watched John, nodding as if to tell him not to worry, to take his time. He nodded the same way he’d nodded during John’s first Mass, silently urging him to get a grip and carry on. That’s how it always was when John said Mass to the family, John shaky-voiced and Dad nodding. Only once, when we’d arrived early for a visit and slipped into John’s church unnoticed, had I seen John say the Mass calmly, easily, in his cool, priestly voice. I’d forgotten, that was all. Forgotten how emotional John was when he said Mass to the family. It had been more than a year, and this was worse than I remembered, maybe because it was so personal, just the family and our closest friends in our home. And everyone was on edge now anyway, all stirred up about Jake’s and my wedding. Still, this was just John being emotional. Nothing else.

A flood of relief washed over me, and I wanted to laugh. I tried to fix my attention on anything to stifle my laughter, but everything seemed unbearably funny in the context of the solemnness of the service: a barbecuing apron hanging from a hook by the stove (The Cook is Always Right); frog-shaped salt and pepper shakers beside a rack of wine glasses; a photograph of me in a black cat costume with my old boyfriend, Michael, in a vampire cape.

I fixed my eyes on the knot of my hands in my lap, the knuckles now white. Why did Mom keep that photo there, taped to the refrigerator? I hadn’t seen Michael for two years. But he would have been the perfect son-in-law: successful in a young man’s way, deferential to Mom and Dad, and not divorced. Dad had said as much.

"I know I’m wasting time," John repeated.

Yes, you’re wasting time, John, I wanted to say. And I can’t afford to miss my flight; it’s the last one to get me to Los Angeles in time for Jessie’s graduation from middle school. Jessie would be my stepdaughter after Jake and I married, and I had to be there, I just did. But John’s display of emotion touched something in me, too, something I could control no better than he could. Maybe his emotion was because of me, because he wasn’t going to say the Mass to marry me, because I wouldn’t belong in the Church anymore. But I didn’t like to think of that, of all the times my family would be together without me.

John lifted his arms, raised them to the level of the stove hood behind him, calling us to say the Profession of Faith. We joined hands, Mom reaching back from the row in front of me to take mine, squeezing tightly, as if she might never let go. I said the words, "We believe in one God . . .," without hesitation, my tongue more comfortable with this Catholic form of the prayer than it would ever be with the Episcopal version, though they differed by only a few words. There was emotion in my voice, too, and I was glad to be at the back, with nobody looking at my face.

We knelt through the endless Eucharistic Prayer, everyone shifting from knee to knee on the hard linoleum, trying not to make any noise. I was used to the grinding of the crumbs on my knees by the time John lifted the larger host into the air.

"Take this, all of you, and eat," he said. "This is my body, which will be given up for you." And then, raising the chalice, "Take this all of you, and drink from it: This is the cup of my blood . . ."

There was an almost audible sigh of relief when we’d finished the concluding acclamation and could stand for The Lord’s Prayer, offer the sign of peace with our hugs, and watch John break the bread, drop a few crumbs into the wine and serve communion to himself.

And as we stood and pushed the chairs even closer together to form an aisle to the altar, Aunt Dotty stood too. I watched, confused, as she headed toward the altar. How could she be served communion? How could John invite her? The fact that Ben was dead didn’t change the fact that Dotty was divorced, that she’d remarried outside the Church. She knew the rules. She couldn’t receive communion without getting an annulment, and there was no possibility she’d do that.

John served Dad and Aunt Mary, then Finney. He kept glancing up the line, toward Aunt Dotty and me, shooting me pleading looks. I wondered if I should tap Dotty’s shoulder, but he’d said he would serve her communion, hadn’t he? And then I watched as John did serve Dotty, and I was still thinking about it—thinking maybe John was finally becoming a little flexible and if he’d break the rules for Dotty, certainly he’d break them for me, he’d come to my wedding and if he came so would everyone else—when my turn for communion came.

I stood there, the last person in the communion line in Mom’s kitchen, feeling hopeful for the first time since I’d become engaged. I stood there, head bowed, hands cupped together in a throne for the Eucharist, waiting for John to say, "The body of Christ."

The clock ticked on the wall. A radio announcer’s voice came from a back bedroom, a dog’s bark from down the street.

John stared at the silver plate, his other hand empty, no little white host in his fingers. He cleared his throat and looked me straight in the eyes, and there was some emotion in his face, sadness maybe, or uncertainty or disappointment. I couldn’t tell. But there was an odd firmness underneath it. His lips were tight, his jaw set.

He wasn’t going to serve me communion? In front of everyone—the entire family— with everyone was watching us, waiting, holding their breaths?

I wanted to walk out the door and just keep going. He could take his high and mighty Church, his holier-than-thou attitude, his all important robes and—

But of course that would prove to him that he was right about whatever it was he was thinking. And ruin Mom’s birthday, too.

"I see," I whispered, nodding, feeling a hotness in my cheeks. "I see." I stepped back, and, seeing only the patterned linoleum, returned to my chair.

I sat watching as John put away the hosts and wiped the chalice with a white cloth. He folded the soiled linen into three layers, placed it across the top of the cup and covered it with the stiff paten. He did not look at me as he worked. I looked at him, though, at every movement of his robed, priestly self. I watched it all, John and my family in this familiar service. I watched through the doorway, tasting the emptiness in my mouth.

John directed us to "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord," and my family stood, singing "Amazing Grace" without accompaniment as John disappeared through the door, carrying the crucifix. He was in the bathroom long before the hymn was over.

We finished singing and everyone started talking all at once. Aunt Joyce went on about how nice the Mass was, but weren’t kneelers a good thing. Finney said maybe we could just sit and stand next time. "Perhaps we could get some cushions," Mom conceded. With all that talk, though, no one said a word about the communion, and no one met my eyes. They just talked and talked, their words coming a little too rapidly, their voices a bit too loud.

As Mom turned the gas on under the griddle, I looked at the clock on the wall. Only twenty minutes. Enough time, though, to give John a piece of my mind privately once he emerged, derobed.

"I’m doing the pancakes, Mom," I said. "You go relax."

She put her hands on my arms and moved my bangs aside. "It’s been such a nice birthday, Katy," she said. "With everyone I love in the world. It’s been perfect, nearly perfect. I just wish everyone didn’t have to leave."

Nearly perfect, except for my engagement. Or did she think that? She hadn’t said anything. She’d only sat silently beside Dad and John.

"I’m glad you’re happy, Mom." I made myself smile. "I’m glad you’re having a happy birthday." I kissed her cheek and shoed her out of the kitchen, as if she were the child.

Buck began packing the altar makings into the Mass kit. "You okay, Katy?" he asked, but his voice lacked the brotherly teasing that, oddly, I now wanted to hear.

I pulled the batter from the refrigerator, removed the plastic wrap. "I’m fine, Buck." I stirred the lumps of banana and pecan, then flicked water onto the griddle. The drops danced and sizzled in the heat. I poured out pools of batter, and when they were covered with bubbles I flipped them. I filled plates and handed them to Dad or Finney or Buck or whoever was standing near me, and they disappeared into the family room, where everyone was settling in. I poured and flipped and served, poured and flipped and served until the air was filled with the smell of bananas and everyone was eating and Dad had my bag in the car, the motor running. The griddle was nearly cold again and I had eaten my own pancakes, but I was telling Dad, "I’m not quite ready. Just a minute," and I was back in the kitchen, waiting, when John finally walked in. He poured a glass of milk from the pitcher, then lifted the last clean plate from the center island and approached my griddle. He, too, seemed unable to meet my eyes.

"Any sustenance left for a sentimental priest?" he asked quietly, speaking to his empty plate. He’d shed the robes, and his eyes were no longer weepy, but his skin was pink and vulnerable where he’d tried to scrub himself free of emotion, and he smelled of Ivory Soap.

I turned the griddle back on, poured the oil.

"You want to tell me what that was all about?" I asked.

He looked at me blankly, as if I might believe he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.

"Communion," I said. "I’m not excommunicated yet, am I? Not until I marry him, right?"

John took in a deep breath, puffed his cheeks and blew the air out. "You don’t get excommunicated, anymore. Not automatically. We went over that on the phone. You can’t receive the sacraments but—"

"So you just do that to me?" I mashed at the batter with the wooden spoon. "You just stand there and refuse to serve me communion in front of everyone?"

He ran a hand around the edge of his empty plate. "Didn’t you see me looking at you, trying to signal you to sit? You’d have to have been to confession."


"You can’t receive the Eucharist with a grave sin on your soul." His voice rose a little. "It would be a sacrilege. I didn’t think you— You weren’t even fasting."


"You were drinking coffee right before the Mass!"

"No one fasts—"

"I do. Buck does. It’s only an hour, for crying out loud."

"It’s not—"

"You think that wasn’t awkward for me? You’re engaged to a married man, Kathleen!"

The oil on the griddle popped once, as if in answer.

"Jake is divorced," I said.

He crossed his arms over his chest, still holding the empty plate. "His marriage has not been annulled."

"Damn it, John. He wasn’t even married in the Catholic Church. What gives the Church the right to decide the marriage wasn’t real?"

John looked at the griddle, his frustration showing. "We’ve been over that."

"But you served Aunt Dotty and she’s divorced!"

"She’s started the process of annulling her marriage. It’s enough now, at her age, to have started the process. You can do that too. Get the process started. I can do it for you. For you and Jake. Just tell me you want me to."

"But Dotty wouldn’t—"

It hit me then, though, that it wasn’t Dotty’s marriage to Ben she would annul. It was her first marriage, to the man who’d left her only days after the wedding, the man with whom she’d never had children. I turned my back to John, turned to the griddle which popped oil again and again.

"It would be the best present anyone could give Mom." John was nearly pleading. "A Catholic wedding for her only daughter? Dad’s one shot at giving a bride away?" He ran a finger around the edge of his collar. "The former spouse—"

"Pam. She’s the mother of the child who is going to be my stepchild, John. She has a name! Her name is Pam."

John’s eyes resumed their priestly glaze despite their red rims. "The former spouse," he said evenly, "doesn’t need to be involved. It can be done without her."

"That’s great John." I flipped the faucet on, stuck my fingers under the stream of water. "We can annul her marriage and we don’t even have to tell her? And what about Jessie, John? If Jake wasn’t really married to Pam, then what is she?"

"You’re being irrational—"

I slammed the tap off. "A bastard, John. If they weren’t married when they had her, wouldn’t she be a bastard? You can explain it away with all your Catholic rationalizations, but that’s what she’ll think, that an annulment makes her a bastard. I’m not doing that! Forget about it! I won’t do that to Jess!"

"Irrational. Stubborn. Inflexible."

"Where do you think I learned that? From your rational, flexible, all-forgiving Church?"

I flung my fingers at the griddle. The drops sizzled, the water steaming into nothing, dissipating into the air. I waited for John’s retort, his defense of his precious Church, but he looked past me. His face bore the same look it had when I’d found him with his hands up Annie Simon’s shirt twenty years ago.

Mom stood in the kitchen doorway, looking much older than the woman who’d been laughing that sweet, high laugh-sigh. The quiet was everywhere.

"You two okay in here?"

John uncrossed his arms, looked down at his plate.

The faucet dripped behind me.

I looked at the empty griddle, at the almost empty bowl.

"We’re fine," I said. "We’re fine. Tell Dad I’m ready. We’ve got to go."

Mom smiled, but it was not the smile she’d worn all weekend. There was a sad politeness in it.

"We’re already late," I said.

Mom nodded and left to find my father.

I turned to the griddle, then, and stirred the batter one last time, and I poured the last of it out into three perfect circles, each one as round as a communion host.