by Marcia Muller
Page 6 of 6
When I arrived at Mission Dolores, the neoclassical facade
of the basilica was bathed in floodlights, the dome and towers
gleaming against the post-midnight sky. The street was choked
with double-parked vehicles, and from within I heard voices
raised in a joyous chorus. Beside the newer early
twentieth-century structure, the small adobe church built in the
late 1700s seemed dwarfed and enveloped in deep silence. I
hurried up the wide steps to the arching wooden doors of the
basilica, then took a moment to compose myself before entering.
Like many of my generation, it had been years since I'd been
even nominally a Catholic, but the old habit of reverence had
never left me. I couldn't just blunder in there and creep about,
peering into every worshipper's face, no matter how great my
urgency. I waited until I felt relatively calm before pulling
open the heavy door and stepping over the threshold.
The mass was candlelit; the robed figures of the priest and
altar boys moved slowly in the flickering, shifting light. The
stained glass window behind the altar and those on the side walls
gleamed richly. In contrast, the massive pillars reached upward
to vaulted arches that were deeply shadowed. As I moved slowly
along one of the side aisles, the voices of the choir swelled to
a majestic finale.
The congregants began to go forward to receive Communion. As
they did, I was able to move less obtrusively, scanning the faces
of the young people in the pews. Each time I spotted a teenaged
boy, my heart quickened. Each time I felt a sharp stab of
I passed behind the waiting communicants, then moved
unhurriedly up the nave and crossed to the far aisle. The church
was darker and sparsely populated toward the rear; momentarily a
pillar blocked my view of the altar. I moved around it.
He was there in the pew next to the pillar, leaning wearily
against it. Even in the shadowy light, I could see that his face
was dirty and tired, his jacket and jeans rumpled and stained.
His eyes were half-closed, his mouth slack; his hands were shoved
between his thighs, as if for warmth.
Mike--no, Michael--had come to the only safe place he knew
in the city, the church where on two Christmas Eves he'd
attended mass with his family and their friends, the Shribers,
who had lived across the street.
I slipped into the pew and sat down next to him. He jerked
his head toward me, stared in openmouthed surprise. What little
color he had drained from his face; his eyes grew wide and
"Hi, Michael." I put my hand on his arm.
He looked as if he wanted to shake it off. "How did you...?"
"Doesn't matter. Not now. Let's just sit quietly till mass is
He continued to stare at me. After a few seconds he said, "I
bet Mom and Dad are really mad at me."
"More worried than anything else."
"Did they hire you to find me?"
"No, I volunteered."
"Huh." He looked away at the line of communicants.
"You still go to church?" I asked.
"Not much. None of us do anymore. I kind of miss it."
"Do you want to take Communion?"
He was silent. Then, "No. I don't think that's something I
can do right now. Maybe never."
"Well, that's okay. Everybody expresses his feelings for...
God, or whatever, in different ways." I thought of the group of
homeless worshippers in the vacant lot. "What's important is that
you believe in something."
He nodded, and then we sat silently, watching people file up
and down the aisle. After a while he said, "I guess I do believe
in something. Otherwise I couldn't have gotten through this week.
I learned a lot, you know."
"I'm sure you did."
"About me, I mean."
"What're you going to do now? Send me home?"
"Do you want to go home?"
"Maybe. Yes. But I don't want to be sent there. I want to go
on my own."
"Well, nobody should spend Christmas Day on a plane or a bus
anyway. Besides, I'm having ten people to dinner at four this
afternoon. I'm counting on you to help me stuff the turkey."
Michael hesitated, then smiled shyly. He took one hand from
between his thighs and slipped it into mine. After a moment he
leaned his tired head on my shoulder, and we celebrated the dawn
of Christmas together.
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