In the middle of Sunday mass, Larry Combs got the tap. The shoulder tap that had given him so much fear over the years. He’d seen it happen to others, the thin smiles of petrified reluctance, but you can’t say ‘no.’ You cannot refuse.
“Sir, would you mind serving as usher today?”
Larry’s neck and back pulled tighter than a hunter’s bowstring. Ice shot up his spine.
The suited old gentleman would fit right in with Don Corleone’s mafia. He had a large nose and a mustache, and he looked at Larry with that old European seriousness, pointing his finger along the aisle requiring services.
“Yes. Of course.”
Larry could barely focus on the mass now. He could not fail at the job, and it required him to get into position at just the right moment. He couldn’t locate the gentleman or any other ushers to watch for a cue, so he continuously looked back to the middle aisle where they would line up.
He stood petrified, trying to give the Nicene Creed more than just a cursory recitation, when the tap came again. His scalp twisted. “It’s time,” said the old gentleman.
Larry hiccuped and caught his breath, mortified at his dereliction. He bolted and his toe caught the kneeler, lifting it then releasing it to fall with a loud knock that echoed through the church. It tripped him and he stumbled, barely catching himself on a pew where a jowly lady under a veil glowered.
He hustled to the back, grabbed three baskets, and stood behind the last pew, his eyes glued to the ushers in the center aisle. Another stood at his shoulder for the other side. The middle men strode to the front and Larry did the same, concentrating on the task, which would require all of his focus.
The first collection for the church used two baskets. Send one down the first row and another down the third. The first one gets passed back by a parishioner at the other end, then comes down row two, where the usher takes it and passes that one on to row five, then grabs the one coming down row four and passes it to row seven, each basket two rows at a time. It was some ancient usher’s bright idea for speeding up the collection. Probably the same guy who invented pay toilets. It seemed like it should be easy, but one slip could give rise to chaos.
The second collection, for the assistance of recent tornado victims, was easier. Once the two baskets for the first one have a sufficient lead, the usher starts the third basket up front, and allows the parishioners to pass it back on both sides.
It started out smoothly enough for Larry. He got into a groove handing the baskets off every two rows. Then he realized he was much farther from the front than he’d intended for starting the second collection. He quickly handed back the basket he just took, then marched to the front, dropping the basket off abruptly at the first row to get back in time for either of the others to return to the middle.
His blood curdled, for he realized at that moment what he’d done, and he knew what he would see when he turned around.
Spinning on his heel, he located the two baskets. A young man with four kids at the far end of a row passed back one basket just as another was neared the end of row he passed it to. Larry had failed to skip a row with the last basket, and they were going to collide!
He raced to the middle, waving his hands trying to get their attention, but they didn’t see him. Both baskets met in the row right in front of a teenaged boy. He grabbed one, then the other. His bewilderment was evident, and he didn’t know what to do. He started passing one way, then another, never releasing and then he did the unthinkable. He passed them both in the same direction to another teenaged boy.
This one passed a basket behind him—in the middle of the row! He passed the other back to the other boy. People started passing them back and forth, forward and back. The baskets jostled, jingling and creaking, nearly spilling their contents.
Larry danced back and forth, waving for the baskets to come his way, but the crowd was confused and in tumult. This could not continue into the consecration! Larry gritted his teeth, stepped over an obese man, slipped by some kids, and grabbed one of the baskets. He stretched over the next pew and bumped the crown of the guy holding the other one. The man turned around and scowled, but Larry held up his usher’s index finger and crooked it in the universal signal for ‘over here.’ The man softened and handed it to him.
Larry managed to extricate himself from the crowd and get a single basket started before the second collection got too close, but the old mustached gentleman stared at him from the back with steely eyes and a raised eyebrow. Humiliation flooded Larry as he picked up the collection baskets that had found their ways to the back row. He felt like the entire congregation watched him.
He trudged back to a small room in the vestibule where the money collectors waited with baskets the size of bongo drums. One for each collection. Larry got in line as each usher emptied the collections. The collectors looked at him with questioning eyes, as if wondering whether He’d skimmed. He glanced at the old gentleman who stood next to the line with a high stack of the smaller baskets. Larry’s ears went cold.
“It’s all here,” Larry said.
The old gentleman furrowed his brow. “You will usher for Communion, too?”
“Yes. Of course.”
Larry stood waiting in the back instead of sitting down. Many parishioners lined the back wall behind him. He looked around for anyone needing a minister of the Eucharist to come to them, but didn’t notice any. This should be easy.
The priest began the prayers of consecration, so Larry put all his fears aside and focused on the arrival of Our Lord, and a feeling overtook him. A sense of privilege and honor to guide the participants to receive him, and if anything would go sideways, he would fulfill his role and usher.
Two Lay Eucharistic Ministers approached the front of the aisle, and Larry walked up to meet them, arriving just before them. He stepped out of the way for the first row to come out and receive, then continued the process backward.
He was about two thirds of the way, when he bumped into someone behind him. A plump hispanic lady smiled and murmured an ‘excuse me.’ He turned around and found that people from the back wall had lined up behind him, apparently mistaking him for being in the Communion line. None of the rows from that point back had come out, and the back wallers blocked them from the aisle, and blocked Larry from ushering them out.
Disaster was upon him. During this most sacred of moments, chaos would reign in his section. He didn’t think he could bear more humiliation. He was stuck. The old gentlemen shook his head from his place in the middle aisle.
Then Larry looked forward, focused on the purpose, and heard the words again. Fulfill your role. Usher. He turned around and smiled with as much warmth and firmness he could muster and pointed to the back. “Line up at the back row,” he whispered. “He showed his teeth through his smile and nodded his head… And they went. She plodded back and the others followed.
He finished releasing the rest of the rows, then waved the hispanic woman by and beckoned toward the other parishioners on the back wall to follow. At the very end, Larry fell in line and went up to receive. His duties as an usher finished, he came back to his seat exhausted, but grateful.
When the mass ended, Larry feared leaving. He half expected the usher brotherhood to form a gauntlet he would have to run, receiving blow after blow from the heels of their shoes, suffering them checking his pockets for stolen collection money. He’d tried so hard and had come so close to disaster, to disrupting the house of God and assuring himself another hundred years in Purgatory.
The church was nearly empty when Larry’d gotten enough courage to leave. He genuflected, crossed himself with holy water, and walked through the doors into the vestibule. Several ushers lined up by the outside doors, the old gentlemen in front of them. He looked at Larry, bent over and took off his shoe.
Larry drooped, but kept walking. The old man tapped his shoe upside down against his palm, then as Larry reached him, he slipped it back on.
“Well done, and thank you,” he said.
Larry gaped. “Really?”
The gentleman smiled.
Larry smiled back, then realized with sudden foreboding—he’d be tapped again. He cringed and used the energy of a suppressed sigh to say, “You’re welcome. Any time.”