PAUL THEROUX

My Secret History

Chapter 1

I was born poor in rich America, yet my secret instincts were better than money and were for me a source of power. I had advantages that no one could take away from me - a clear memory and brilliant dreams and a knack for knowing when I was happy. I was at my happiest leading two lives, and it was a satisfaction to me that the second one - of the dreamer or the sneak - I kept hidden. That was how I spent my first fifteen years. Fifteen was young then and I knew this: The poor don't belong. But one summer out of loneliness or impatience my second self did more than wake and watch, and more than remember. He began to see like a historian, and he acted. I have to save my life, I used to think.


Early that summer I was walking down a lovely crumbling little street lined with elms, called Brookview Road. The city of Boston, with its two tall buildings, was visible from one end of the road looking east along the Fellsway. The brook was a shallow ditch at the other end of the road, where the Italian families had tomato gardens. There were rats in the ditch, but it was a pretty part of town in June when the wineglass elms were heavy with leaves. It was a perfect day of blue sky and the hot summer hum of insects, which made a sound like the temperature rising. I had my rifle over my shoulder - a Mossberg twenty-two - as I passed Tina Spector's house. She was sitting on her piazza, which was our word for porch. I had planned it this way.
She said, 'Hey, Andy, where are you going with that gun?'
'Church,' I said.
'It's Tuesday!'
'But I've got a funeral.' I was still walking, and now Tina started off the piazza towards me. I knew she would: it was part of my plan.


'How come you're bringing your gun to church?'
'Target practice, up the Sandpits,' I said. 'After.'
She said, 'My mother can't stand guns.' Everybody said that. I kept walking. '
And you're not even sixteen,' she said.
I could feel the warm pressure of her eyes on the back of my neck.
She said, 'Can I come with you?'
'Okay,' I said, probably too eagerly - but I didn't want her to change her mind. I had planned to agree very slowly and reluctantly. I had blurted it out, because I was so glad she had asked. The thought of being alone with Tina in the Sandpits on a hot summer afternoon was very erotic, and having my rifle with me made it still more erotic, for a reason I could not explain. I did not know what erotic meant; wicked was the word that went through my head.
'Meet me outside St Ray's.'
'My mother doesn't want me near that church.'
Her mother was a non-Catholic.
'What's in that bag?' she asked - she was still following me, three steps behind.
'Ammo,' I said. 'Bullets.' That was a lie. My cartridges were in my pocket. In my bag I had a starched surplice - a white smock with starched sleeves and a stiff plastic collar. I was an altar boy, on my way to serve at a funeral.
I heard her sneakers crunch behind me. I knew she had stopped but I didn't look around.
'See you later,' she said.
'Okay,' I said.
We were both fifteen years old. I did not know whether she would be waiting for me. Things always happened suddenly, without much warning. Some days nothing happened and other days everything.




The rule at St Raphael's - St Ray's - was that if you served at three funerals you got a wedding as a reward. Funerals were gloomy, and it was an elderly parish, so there was plenty of them. But there was money in a wedding. The altar boys usually got two dollars, and the priest got ten. The money was handed over by the best man or the bride's father. It was always in a white envelope, always in the sacristy. 'Here you are,' they'd say to us, and then turning to the priest, 'This is for you, Father.'
'God bless you,' the priest would say, as he folded the envelope into his vestments. Meanwhile we were tearing ours open.
There was no money in funerals, and it could be terrible, especially if it was Italians - the shouts and nose-blowings of big competitive families, and the loud abrupt sobbing, or 'No!' or the screaming of the dead person's name. 'Salveeeeee!'
I unslung my Mossberg and held it muzzle down, walking stiff-legged to conceal it. I sneaked into the sacristy and saw Chicky DePalma pulling on his cassock.
'I hosey the bells,' he said, before I could speak. Ringing the bells at the consecration was considered one of the enjoyable duties of an altar boy, and the boy who rang the bells also got to hold the plate at the communion. That was a flat gold pan that was placed under a person's chin to catch any falling flecks of the consecrated host.
Chicky had started buttoning his cassock - a finicky job, thirty buttons or more.
'Hey, shit-face, you're not supposed to bring guns into a church!' He fought the buttons with his big fingers.
'It's not loaded. And I took the bolt out.'
'It's still a gun! It could go off, asshole!'
'You don't know shit about guns,' I said. 'Anyway, this is the sacristy.'
The sacristy was a safe place - not sacred, but a sort of neutral area, like a lobby where we altar boys met and waited until it was time for mass. In the mean time we were growing up. Whenever a priest tried to explain what Limbo or Purgatory was I thought of the sacristy. Who would know if there was a gun here?
I slipped the Mossberg into the closet behind the hanging cassocks, and then looked for a cassock my size.
Chicky said, 'I saw you with Specks.'
'She was following me.' I decided not to tell him I was taking her to the Sandpits - he would laugh or else mock me.
'Her sister got knocked up - she had to get married.' Chicky was now working his arms into his surplice - it was pure white and pleated, and fringed with lace. Italians always had the best surplices, because of their mothers; and they even brought them on hangers. 'She was a real tramp. She once took on six guys. She used to give hand-jobs. She let Moochie eat her out.'
'Quit it,' I said.
'You fairy,' Chicky said, and smoothed his surplice in the mirror. 'I was making out last night. I'm not going to say with who. After about two seconds she was letting me have bare tit. I was really getting her hot.'
'I'll bet you weren't,' I said, to encourage him. I was eager for more. I buttoned my cassock and pretended I wasn't listening.
'He doesn't believe me,' he said, in a confident way, and then teased me with silence.
'How did you know?' I whispered, looking around. The priest had still not arrived, although the vestments were out, folded neatly on top of the altar-like cabinet, the stacks of linens and the bright chasuble, and his cope, his cincture and stole.
He said, 'I could feel it.' I was staring at him, holding the skirt of my cassock.
He said, 'When a girl gets hot her hole gets bigger.'
I could picture this very distinctly, the dark opening and the way it widened in a round welcoming way. My mouth was very dry. No one had ever said those words to me before, but it made perfect sense.
Chicky was fixing his plastic collar - twisting it to fasten the collar button into it.
'She was really hot,' he said. 'I got three fingers into her.' The sun was streaming through the stained-glass window over the vestments, and the alb and the white linens blazed. The sacristy was warm and smelled of floor polish and soft candle-wax.
'Who was it?' Now I had my cassock and surplice on, and I was tying the black bow in front of my collar. It was impossible for me to hide my fascination with what he had told me.
He grinned to tease me with another delay, and then he said, 'Magoo.'
lt was a girl named Eloise McGonagle, but no one called her anything but Magoo.
Chicky was still grinning, but now his lips were purple. He held out a bottle of mass wine and said in a man-of-the-world way, 'Want a swig?'
I tried not to look shocked. It was not that he was drinking mass wine - I had seen him do that before, and had even had some myself - but rather that he was doing it so near to the time the priest was to arrive. His tongue was purple, he had a purple moustache. He sloshed the wine in the bottle and said, 'Go ahead.' His face was Italian yellow, he had long eyelashes and a birthmark like a bruise on his cheek. When he smiled he looked like a monkey.
I took a swig. It tasted harsh and bitter '- it tasted dreadful. I had another. It tasted even worse.
'Have one of these,' Chicky said.
He was holding out a handful of cornmunion wafers, small papery discs, and some spilled to the Hoor as he offered them.
'They're not consecrated, so what the fuck,' he said recklessly and stuffed the hosts into his mouth. Just then the priest came in, walking fast.
'In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,' the priest said, blessing himself as he strode from the sacristy door to the sideboard where the vestments were neatly folded, and there he genuflected.
'Let us pray,' he said, and paused before he added, 'for the conversion of Russia.'
His face seemed to swell up when he closed his eyes to pray. He murmured - the little whimpers that suggested that the prayers were for a lost cause - and Chicky gulped down the last of the hosts and made a face that said, 'Who's this dink?', which was a remark he often made.
'Amen,' the priest said, and began the slow business of putting on his vestments, murmuring more prayers and kissing each garment before wrapping it around himself.
I had never seen him before, and I knew at once he was unlike any of the other priests at St Ray's. The Pastor was white-haired and tall and had a stern chalky forehead and small pitiless eyes and pale lips; and the other priests - Father Skerrit, Father Hanratty and Father Flynn - were young, thin and Irish. They had knobby joints and large Adam's apples and the popping eyes that usually go with them, and blush blotches on their cheeks. They smelled of clean laundry and talcum powder; the Pastor had no smell at all.
But Father Furty (I saw his name in the mass list on the sacristy wall) was a big man - thick arms and an overhanging belly - and although not old he had greyish hair cut very short in a sort of Julius Caesar style. He was bottle-nosed and had a meaty face and sausagey fingers. I could tell he was strong - the way he filled his vestments, the way his loafers squeaked. That was another thing: I had never seen a priest wear anything as sporty as loafers - and to a funeral!
He seemed unusual, but I could not figure out what it was about him that made him different. Then I realized what it was: he was human. He looked like a normal man. He was a man in a priest's clothes. I had never thought of priests as men before - and I had certainly never thought of nuns as women.
He smiled at me and said, 'Yoomit.' He took a hanky out of his sleeve and wiped the perspiration from his face.
It was a moment before I knew he meant humid.
He said, 'You guys better light some charcoal. This is a requiem mass.'
He said 'guys' and 'requiem' in the same way, out of the side of his mouth. For some reason I felt he had been in the navy - he certainly looked more like a sailor than a priest, and perhaps for that reason I found him a reassuring priest.
Chicky and I brought the thurible on to the lawn outside the sacristy and put a match to the charcoal disc. The cross on it fizzed and then we took turns swinging it around until the disc was fiercely alight.
This, like ringing the bells, was another enjoyable routine of being an altar boy. During the mass the priest would sprinkle incense on to the glowing charcoal and a powerful and pungent odour would be released in billows.
I had never questioned being an altar boy. It was something that was expected and inevitable when a boy turned eleven. It was part of being a Catholic boy - an honour and a duty. And becoming a priest was also a possibility. 'You might have a vocation,' my mother used to say. I hoped I did not have a vocation; I did not believe I had a choice. When my mother said, 'God might choose you for Holy Orders,' I imagined something like marching orders - a beckoning finger, a stern summons- and off I'd go to be a priest, whether I liked it or not. But so far I had heard nothing.
'I've never seen this priest before.'
'Furty,' Chicky said. 'He's an alkie.'
'Bullshit.'
'He's a boozehound. I can prove it.'
It was a beautiful day, with a bright sky and a loud drone of bees on the flower-beds and the clack of lawn mowers across the Fellsway.-We knelt in the shade, playing with the smoking thurible, which looked more than ever like a lantern, and then we went in to the funeral.
The routine of a funeral meant waiting until the coffin was wheeled into position in the centre aisle, and the pews were filled. We could see this from where we now stood, two altar boys in front, priest holding a monstrance like a gold mirror against his chest.
'Let's go,' Father Furty said, and Chicky yanked the chain to warn the congregation we were coming, and we could hear them clattering to their feet as soon as the bell sounded.
The rich aroma of flowers I always associated with death, and the incense and the beeswax candles always meant a solemn high mass and a long service. It seemed the more odours there were the longer it would all take. At this funeral there were snuffles and sobs, and one person weeping very loudly.
I was fifteen. I had never known anyone who had died: the emotion of grief was disquieting to me, but alien; yet it was no more disturbing to me than hearing someone laugh and not knowing the reason. My first funeral had bewildered me - not the idea of the body in the coffin but the crying, the intensity of it - I had never heard anyone crying like that, so sad and continuous. It was always loud and pitiful, but it also seemed to me insincere, because the person was dead. But I had never known anyone who had died.
When we walked down from the altar to the centre aisle and the coffin, passing the hot rack of burning vigil lights, Chicky motioned for me to look at him. He was carrying the long-handled cross. He had a very ugly, rubbery, funny face - and the candle- light made it yellower. He often tried to get me laughing, especially at funerals. I faced him, to show him that I could take it without laughing. He wrapped three fingers around the shaft of the cross and shaped the word 'Magoo' with his lips.
I was more likely to laugh at a funeral than in an empty church - the people screaming and sobbing only made me laugh harder. But I resisted. I was thinking about what he had told me - bare tit, hand-jobs, three fingers. 'Her hole gets bigger.'
The coffin was closed, but I knew what was inside: in the centre of white ruffles, like a clown's collar, was a dead old man - the pale powdered face with sunken cheeks and eyes bulging under the lids, and farther down, in moreruffles, a rosary twisted around knuckly fingers; like Walter Hogan's Uncle Pat, whom I had seen at Gaffey's.
We started the requiem mass. I had learned my Latin from a pamphlet that had set it out in easy-to-say spelling.
Intro-eebo ad-ahltaree-dayee ah-dayum-kwee-lah-teefeekat yoo-ven tootem mayum.
That was how we began. It made no sense at all to me, though I knew it by heart and I could win races reciting certain prayers.
It was a sung mass - a fat lady and an organist in the choir loft - Dies irae, dies illa! - and Father Furty intoning the Latin in a falsetto, as if he knew exactly what he was saying. Then he gave a sermon - it was about football and life and being a team player even though you knew you were alone. He said 'frannick' and 'sem-eye professional' and, instead of aunty, 'anny'. He said 'yooman beings'. I was thrilled by this. He was like a man from a foreign land.
He finished and the mass continued. The 'Con fee-teeyor' turned into a race between Chicky and me. Normally we tried to say it very fast, like the 'Soo-ship-eeyat', but when I saw Chicky bent over and hammering his chest at the 'mayah koolpah' I decided to beat him and, swivelling and muttering, I finished first.
'I beat you,' I said, just before the consecration. We were at the side table to the far right of the altar, picking up the cruets of wine and water.
'You skipped the middle part,' he whispered.
'Your ass I did,' I hissed at him.
But he wasn't listening. He whispered, 'I'm going to prove he's an alkie,' and tossed his head.
I looked back at Father Furty who was coming towards us with the chalice.
Normally a priest held out the chalice to receive a little wine and water, and returned to the stand in front of the tabernacle to drink it. It was a simple operation. But today Chicky did something I had never seen before. When Father Furty extended the chalice for the wine, Chicky emptied the cruet into it - tipped it upside- down until all the wine dribbled out.
The chalice trembled, Father Furty seemed to object, but too late; he let out a noisy breath of resignation, considered the full chalice, then moved it sideways for me to add the water. But he lifted the chalice before I could pour more than a few drops in. He returned to the tabernacle, and we studied him.
He straightened up, and then leaned forward and rested his elbows on the altar and glanced into the chalice, tipping it towards him like a big glass. He pushed out his lips, seeming to savour it in anticipation, and then he grasped the chalice more affectionately, shifted his weight on to his back leg, raised the cup, drank it all, and let out a little gasp of satisfaction.
He staggered a bit after that, just catching the toe of his loafer on the altar carpet, and when he was supposed to sprinkle holy water, clanged the gold rod into the holy water bucket and tossed it at the coffin. By then his prayers had become growly and incoherent. There were blobs and beads of holy water on the shiny wooden lid.
Men gathered near the coffin. There was a shout of pain from the congregation, and more sobbing. Then we stood at the foot of the altar and watched the coffin rolled nicely on silent rubber tyres towards the doorway, where summer was blazing, and there were trees and traffic.
Back in the sacristy, Chicky doused the incense and took his cassock and surplice off quickly. He said he had to run an errand for his mother. He knew he had done something wrong, and yet his last glance at me said, 'What did I tell you?'
Father Furty seemed bewildered, as if he were having difficulty phrasing a question. Finally he said, 'This cabinet is empty. That's very strange.'
It was the cabinet where the mass wine was kept; but Chinky had hidden the only other bottle - before mass, when he was sneaking a drink.
'There's a bottle in here,' I said, reaching into the cassock closet, where Chicky had put the bottle he had been fooling with.
'Ah, yes. I thought I was going mennal for a minute there.'
As he took it from me he saw the Mossberg.
'The hell's that?'
'Mossberg. Bolt action. Repeater.'
He hoisted the bottle to see how much wine was in it.
'It's mine,' I said. 'It's not loaded.'
He smiled and poured the wine into a glass - the wine went in with a flapping sound, bloop-bloop-bloop, purply blue with the light passing through it as if it were stained glass. And with a similar sort of sound, Father Furty drank it, emptying the glass and gasping as he had on the altar.
All this time he was smiling at my Mossberg, but he said nothing more. I felt stronger - I was strengthened by his understanding; and from that moment, the period of time it took him to drink the wine, I trusted him.
As I pulled my surplice over my head I heard the sighs of Father Furty still digesting the wine. He was at the sideboard, among the vestments, in his braces, leaning on his elbows and belching softly.
Then he staggered back and sat down and sighed again - more satisfied gasps - and said, 'Don't go, sonny.'
I was trying to think how to get my Mossberg out of the sacristy.
Father Furty was still smiling, though his eyes were not quite focused on me. He looked very tired, sitting there with his hands on his knees. Then he grunted and started to get up.
'I'm going to need a hand,' he said. 'Now put that gun down and point me in the right direction.' He was mumbling so softly he was hardly moving his lips. 'Funerals are no fun,' he said.

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